Nifong’s Swan Song

La Shawn Barber
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Posted: Jun 18, 2007 12:00 AM
Nifong’s Swan Song

Last year, an obscure prosecutor from North Carolina made a decision that would turn him into a national pariah and end his 28-year legal career.

Black stripper Crystal Gail Mangum claimed that in the early morning hours of March 14, 2006, she was raped by white Duke University lacrosse players at a house party. She told conflicting accounts of the gang rape. In April 2006, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong presented evidence to a grand jury, seeking and obtaining indictments for first degree forcible rape, sexual offense, and kidnapping against lacrosse players Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty.

Several days before the indictments, defense attorneys revealed there was no DNA match between Mangum and the 46 players tested. A month later, lacrosse team captain David Evans was indicted on the same charges.

On December 22, Nifong dropped the first degree forcible rape charges after Mangum said she couldn’t remember whether she’d been raped. In January 2007, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took over the case. Citing lack of evidence and inconsistent witness statements, he dropped all charges against Seligmann, Finnerty, and Evans on April 11, declaring the men “innocent and Nifong a “rogue” prosecutor.

Last Friday, a disgraced, disgraceful, and under-repentant Nifong sat before his North Carolina State Bar colleagues and the men he virtually held hostage for a year, tearfully offering a tepid, lawyer-like apology for his transgressions:

“To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students that were wrongly accused.”

He announced his resignation as district attorney:

“My community has suffered enough… It has become apparent, during the course of this week, in some ways that it might not have been before, that my presence as the district attorney in Durham is not furthering the cause of justice.”

Neither his apology nor his intent to resign were enough to overcome his egregious ethics violations. On Saturday, June 16, Nifong’s colleagues found him guilty of lying to a judge, withholding evidence from the defense, and making inflammatory statements to the media about the case. And they disbarred him.

The decision is almost anti-climactic for those who saw through Nifong from the start. I got wind of the case a couple of weeks after Mangum accused the men. My initial impression turned out to be accurate – a stripper with a criminal record, a history of mental problems, and fantasies of gang rape told a Tawana Brawley-style whopper to save her own skin. But most of the blame falls squarely on Nifong’s head.

Appointed to the position in 2005, Nifong ran for district attorney in 2006. He plowed ahead with a stunningly weak case, fanning the flames of race and class tension in the heavily black city. Overwhelmed and perhaps flattered by the media attention, he was unable or unwilling to objectively assess his case, his main witness, or his future as a lawyer. Nifong used the case to campaign for office, exuding an aura of class envy, smarminess, and vindictiveness in the process.

During his testimony before the disciplinary panel, Nifong contradicted himself many times and conceded violating the Rules of Professional Conduct. Incredibly, he admitted that he hadn’t read police reports. More incredibly still, Nifong maintains that “something” happened that night between the stripper and the players, that he “tried to do the right thing,” and that he never withheld anything from the defense or misrepresented evidence.

Knowing his disbarment was imminent, Nifong should have reserved some level of dignity by skipping the Bill Clinton-like obfuscations and accepting full responsibility for his actions. But to the very end, he remained self-absorbed.