Duke prof: Rape case needs new prosecutor

He says Nifong should step aside

Staff WritersJune 13, 2006 

— A prominent Duke University law professor says District Attorney Mike Nifong should ask the state attorney general for a special prosecutor to handle the rape case against the three lacrosse players.

James Coleman, the Duke law professor who led the university's investigation of the lacrosse program, says evidence presented by defense lawyers has made him question whether District Attorney Mike Nifong is too personally invested in the case.

"I don't think he's showing detached judgment," Coleman said Monday. "I personally have no confidence in him."

Without opinion polls, it is difficult to gauge public confidence in Nifong.

Local newspapers and national TV talk shows have been filled with criticism of his handling of the case.

But amid the criticism, the career prosecutor won the Democratic primary for an unchallenged spot on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Since then, Nifong has refrained from public statements about the investigation. He declined comment Monday on Coleman's proposal.

Coleman's call for a special prosecutor comes at a time when a Durham lawyer and county commissioner Lewis Cheek is contemplating a write-in campaign against Nifong, in part because of the way the lacrosse case has been handled.

Critical of tactics

Nifong, a prosecutor for more than 27 years, has been criticized locally and nationally for speaking out publicly about the case before charges were filed.

The state bar's rules forbid a prosecutor from making out-of-court statements that heighten public condemnation of the accused.

Coleman was critical of the early public statements and of procedures used for police photo lineups in which the accuser identified the three players charged with rape, sex offense and kidnapping.

Defense lawyers have accused Nifong of closing his door to evidence that undermined his case.

Roy Cooper, the state attorney general, has not been approached about appointing a special prosecutor. Nifong's office would have to make such a request.

"I think any decent prosecutor in North Carolina could handle this case," Coleman said. "It's important to have somebody that people respect, someone who has no dog in the fight. It has to be resolved in a way that people have confidence in the outcome."

The case has highlighted issues of race, class and sexual violence.

"There is no question that this case has done damage to the greater Durham community, to Duke University, to the alleged victim and her family and to the lacrosse players and their families," said Eugene Brown, a City Council member who lives near the Duke East Campus.

Coleman said he's followed the case closely in the newspapers but hasn't spoken with any of the lawyers involved. He said he was disturbed by the transcript of the identification procedures, where a police officer told the accuser that she was about to look at photos of everyone who attended the party.

"The officer was telling the witness that all are suspects, and say, in effect, 'Pick three,' " Coleman said. "It's so wrong; it had to be done for a reason other than identification."

At a recent conference, NAACP leaders and others were critical of defense lawyers for trying to sway public opinion against the accuser.

Al McSurely, a Chapel Hill lawyer who is a member of the state NAACP chapter's legal committee, declined to comment on Coleman's proposal.

Coleman stressed that the appointment of a special prosecutor would not be the end of the case against the accused.

Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or ablythe@newsobserver.com

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