After 15 months of waging war in the Duke lacrosse case, Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong surrendered his law license yesterday.
Nifong gave up minutes after a state panel ruled that he had intentionally and repeatedly lied and cheated as he prosecuted three former lacrosse players on rape charges.
Disbarment fit the magnitude of Nifong's offenses, said the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, which serves as judge and jury to lawyers charged with wrongdoing.
"It's been truly a fiasco," said Chairman Lane Williamson in his ruling.
Yesterday marked the first time that a North Carolina prosecutor has been disbarred for courtroom cheating. Williamson said the message that such behavior can cost prosecutors their law license was perhaps the only positive outcome in the case.
Williamson ticked off a long list of victims in the case: the exonerated players, David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann; their families; the lacrosse team and coach; Duke University; the city of Durham; and North Carolina's justice system.
After the hearing, the three players and their families exchanged hugs and goodbyes. The mood in the courtroom was one of relief after more than year of stress and uncertainty.
"There are no winners in this," said Kevin Finnerty, Collin Finnerty's father.
Nifong did not speak at yesterday's hearing and declined to speak afterward. Just before he gave up his bar license, he sat with his wife, Cy Gurney, both in tears.
His lawyer, David Freedman, said Nifong felt that he had been given a fair hearing and thought that disbarment was the appropriate punishment. Nifong will not appeal the decision, Freedman said.
As he concluded the five-day hearing, Williamson struggled to explain the self-destruction of Nifong, who has spent his entire 28-year legal career as a Durham prosecutor.
"Why, why did we get to the place we got?" Williamson asked. "At the root of it is self-deception arising out of self-interest. ... His self-interest collided with a very volatile mix of race, sex and class, a situation which, if it were a plot in a John Grisham novel, would be considered to be too contrived."
According to Williamson, Nifong grabbed hold of the case in the middle of a hotly contested election campaign. An escort service dancer, Crystal Gail Mangum, said she was raped by three men at a lacrosse team party. Nifong immediately went on a media blitz without reading police reports, speaking with Mangum or waiting for DNA tests. Nifong asserted that a racially motivated assault occurred and labeled the players "hooligans."
The case slowly crumbled under Nifong's feet, but he never backed down on the charges.
The accuser gave different accounts every time she spoke with investigators. There was no medical evidence of an assault. DNA tests did not turn up a match with any player.
The tests did find DNA from at least four unidentified men. Nifong knew these results before he brought the first indictment, but he did not disclose the test results for seven months despite repeated requests and court orders to turn over such evidence.
"The fact that we have found dishonesty and misconduct requires us to enter the most severe sanction that we can enter," Williamson said.
Nifong's decisions last week to step down as Durham County district attorney and surrender his law license will keep him from practicing as a lawyer for the next five years.
But that does not mean the prosecutor who bet his career on the Duke lacrosse case will not be back in a courtroom.
Defense lawyers said they plan to file a motion asking Judge W. Osmond Smith III to sanction Nifong for his actions in court.
This month, Smith issued a memorandum saying that he retains control over the lacrosse case and has the power to discipline Nifong as well.
In his memorandum, Smith, the Superior Court judge assigned to the lacrosse case, wrote that significant concerns about evidence arose during a Dec. 15 hearing.
At that hearing, Brian Meehan, director of the private lab that did DNA testing, testified that he and Nifong agreed to write a report that only included information about DNA matches. In crafting the report that way, the prosecutor and lab director excluded crucial information about the presence of DNA from unidentified men - evidence that could have helped the defense prove the innocence of their clients.
The families, who have spent more than $3 million, have contemplated civil suits and lobbied for the federal Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into civil rights violations.
"I would be surprised if the saga of Mike Nifong is over," said Joseph B. Cheshire V, one of the defense lawyers. "His continued efforts to smear the members of the Duke lacrosse team ... did not endear him to the players' families or anyone he hurt in this."
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