Among the most frustrating aspects of the Duke lacrosse case was that the weakness of the prosecution's case was evident practically from the start. If Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong had been more restrained in pursuing the case, three young men might not have been traumatized, a travesty of justice might have been avoided -- and Nifong might still be district attorney.
As it is, Nifong lost both his job and his law license. A disciplinary committee of the North Carolina State Bar disbarred Nifong on Saturday, finding he had broken more than two dozen rules of professional conduct, including lying to the court, making inflammatory statements about the defendants and withholding crucial evidence from defense attorneys.
Nifong told Gov. Mike Easley that he would quit July 13. He has 30 days to surrender his license.
Unfortunately, while Nifong's legal career is over, the pain of this experience for the three indicted lacrosse players and their families could last a lifetime. While the three were completely exonerated by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, all will have to cope with the aftereffects and the realization that, even after being exonerated, suspicions of misconduct on their part will remain.
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And those suspicions were planted in the public's mind by Nifong's relentless, politically motivated but tragically inept handling of the case.
The indictments were spawned by accusations of a stripper who attended a party involving members of the Duke lacrosse team. She claimed that some of the players had raped her during the party.
Nifong brought rape charges soon after. But it since has been revealed that, among other things, Nifong relied on a photo lineup containing only members of the lacrosse team who were at the party; publicly stated that a rape had occurred; and referred to the lacrosse players as "a bunch of hooligans." Worse, he withheld DNA evidence from the defense indicating that none of the accused was involved in an assault on the alleged victim.
By the time Nifong handed off the case to prosecutors from the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, defense attorneys characterized the case as "an incoherent mass of contradiction and error." The charges were dropped, and the three defendants were spared having to endure a trial.
Despite Cooper's decision, Nifong, during the hearing on his disbarment last week, continued to suggest that something illegal had occurred at the party. His obstinacy and his apparent inability to accept the fallout from his actions undoubtedly played against him in the hearing.
Nifong's troubles may not be over. The families of the three indicted players, who sustained millions of dollars in legal expenses, are said to be considering civil actions against the former district attorney.
The three young men were the real victims in this case. But they were not the only ones.
Duke University, which reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the players, saw its campus torn apart by this inflammatory case and its reputation sullied as a result of its overreaction to the accusations. Justice also was a victim in this case, done in by what has aptly been described by prosecutors as Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."
We hope the three defendants who suffered most from this injustice will be able to find a way to put this tawdry episode behind them and move on with their lives.
Though Durham, N.C., District Mike Nifong will leave, Duke lacrosse trial still claims victims.
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