Saunders

Why, Nifong, why?

Staff WriterApril 12, 2007 

From a prosecutor's viewpoint, the case must have seemed like a career-maker, the journalistic equivalent of discovering Elvis working in a Fuquay-Varina Burger King.

Think about it. You've got three privileged, frat boy-looking Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually abusing a single mom from Durham. Add an election and the racial element, and you can see how an ambitious prosecutor might be blinded by klieg lights and visions of book deals and TV movies.

Unfortunately for not-for-long Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, Elvis turned out to be just some fat guy in a dirty white jumpsuit.

Not only did North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper emphatically dismiss charges against the three Duke students accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was paid to entertain them at a party, but he labeled Nifong a "rogue prosecutor." Ouch.

Nobody can say why Nifong rushed so headlong into this case without at least talking to the woman. Why, dude, why?

Despite defense attorney claims, there is no evidence, only speculation, that he was an unscrupulous prosecutor propelled by political ambitions and visions of grandeur to prosecute these guys. I know Nifong, and he strikes me as an honorable man who, it now appears, trusted his instincts over the evidence.

If the victim is as pixilated as Cooper implied at his news conference -- "She's told many stories ... We think she may actually believe them," he said -- Nifong might have concluded during a face-to-face that more skepticism was necessary.

For instance, when Reade Seligmann early on presented time-stamped photos of himself at a bank ATM during the time the alleged assault was occurring, that would have been a good time for the prosecutor to go, "What th' ..."

Make no mistake, the outcome of this case was about money. Had the accused been the sons of millworkers from Apex who had to place their fate in the hands of overworked public defenders, the outcome might have been different.

Lost in the post-dismissal jubilation was the fact that these dudes, like the Duke lacrosse players in general, weren't the proverbial choirboys. You couldn't tell that from the after-party news conference, where defense attorney Joe Cheshire practically canonized them for their athleticism, scholarship and community service.

Community service? Is that what they call parties where strippers are verbally abused and threatened with broomsticks?

Nobody wants to see innocent men sentenced for a crime they didn't commit. But please, stop the deification of the Blue Devil Three. At the least, they and their party mates are guilty of being misogynistic jerks. That, however, is not a crime deserving of either jail time or the media battering they initially received.

It's easy from the evidence to say that these guys are not guilty, but damned if I'll say, as Cooper did, that they're as innocent as lambs.

If Nifong is disbarred, it'll be not only for his sins but for those of other overzealous North Carolina prosecutors who've avoided punishment for misconduct more egregious than his.

It's not inconceivable that he could find himself working next to Elvis at that fast food joint. Of course, after the way he botched this case, who's going to want him messing with their special sauce?

You can tell Barry what you think at 836-2811 or e-mail him at barry.saunders@newsobserver.com.

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