Quest to convict hid a lack of evidence

The district attorney moved quickly to take over the lacrosse inquiry. An N&O review shows that once he accepted the accuser's story, little else mattered

Staff WriterApril 14, 2007 

District Attorney Mike Nifong at a news conference at Durham police headquarters in mid-October.

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY SHAWN ROCCO

  • CHAPTER ONE

    The unpredictable DA makes unusual decisions.

    CHAPTER TWO

    Sunday: Nifong believes the accuser's story. But has he really heard it?

    CHAPTER THREE

    Monday: The pursuit of DNA yields clues never pursued.

    CHAPTER FOUR

    Tuesday: An unsung lawyer cracks the code.

    CHAPTER FIVE

    Wednesday: An overlooked witness reveals new evidence.

  • MARCH 13, 2006: Duke lacrosse players throw a party and hire two escort service workers to dance.

    MARCH 14: Crystal Mangum tells police and medical personnel at Duke Hospital that she was gang-raped.

    MARCH 15: Mangum goes to UNC Hospitals complaining of neck pain. She tells doctors she was drunk the night before.

    MARCH 16: Mangum tells two Durham police investigators she was raped by three men: Adam, Brett and Matt. She views photos of 24 lacrosse players, including Reade Seligmann, but cannot identify any of her alleged assailants.

    MARCH 21: Mangum views the photos of 12 more lacrosse players, including Dave Evans, and cannot identify any of her alleged assailants. She has viewed 36 of the 46 players under suspicion.

  • Audio: Jackie Brown


    Jackie Brown describes how she became Mike Nifong's campaign manager.


    Brown recalls how Nifong told her he wasn't that interested in the job.


    Brown describes rushing back from Topsail Island to confront Nifong over his media statements on the lacrosse case.

******

CORRECTION

A front-page article Sunday about the Duke lacrosse case incorrectly stated the class of Collin Finnerty; he was a sophomore when he was indicted. The article also misspelled the first name of team captain Bret Thompson.

******

DURHAM -- Mike Nifong found out about the case that now threatens his career March 23, 2006, when he stopped by the office copier and found a court order demanding DNA samples from 46 Duke lacrosse players. An escort service dancer told police that three men at a team party had dragged her into a bathroom and raped her anally, vaginally and orally for 30 minutes, according to the order.

The Durham district attorney's reaction, he later told lawyer Jim Cooney: "Holy crap, what is going on?"

The next day, Nifong told Durham police he was taking over. At 9 a.m. March 24, a police captain told the senior investigator, Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, that "Nifong was going to be running and prosecuting this case. ... Go through Mr. Nifong for any directions as to how to conduct matters in this case."

It was an unusual move for a prosecutor, but there's no evidence that the police challenged him. The case, however, was already in trouble.

The 27-year-old complainant, Crystal Gail Mangum, couldn't identify her alleged attackers. She had given at least six conflicting accounts. And the first officer who encountered her didn't believe her story.

Nifong forged ahead in what became a single-minded quest to support the accuser's account, not a mission to discover the truth. His pursuit ended in January when the district attorney, facing charges from the State Bar, removed himself from the case.

The final collapse came Wednesday, when Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann innocent.

A News & Observer examination of Nifong's handling of the case, based on documents and dozens of interviews, adds new insights about the investigation's focus on shoring up Mangum's claims. Nifong ignored contrary facts, withheld evidence favorable to the accused and refused to discuss the case with defense lawyers.

His lead investigator, Linwood Wilson, pressured witnesses and produced different timelines and accounts to support Mangum's shifting statements.

There is no evidence that Nifong or any investigator challenged Mangum to explain the contradictions in her versions of what happened at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. Nor did they speak with the doctor who conducted the pelvic examination hours after Mangum said she had been raped.

Baffling those who knew him along with the millions of people around the world who came to know his name, Nifong stuck with Mangum's stories. As he fought to win the Democratic nomination for district attorney, he made a series of decisions and inflammatory statements that propelled the case into an international scandal. It turned three college students into criminal suspects and brought scorn on Durham, Duke and almost every other institution involved.

Nifong, who has made few public statements since last spring, declined to be interviewed for this report.

Not well known

In March of last year, few people outside the Durham courthouse had heard of Mike Nifong.

He was a career civil servant; prosecuting had been his only job since graduating from law school in 1978. A conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, he had boasted about a career of high ethics.

Nifong had a reputation as a sharp lawyer but was also known as abrasive, vindictive and prone to volcanic tantrums. He hadn't tried a serious felony case since 1999, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A new district attorney, he had never dealt with the swarms of reporters who descend on a major story.

By the time Nifong took the documents off the copier March 23, Durham police were having trouble with the case.

Mangum, a mother of two, worked for several escort agencies and danced at a Hillsborough strip club. She said three men had pulled her into a small, tiled bathroom and assaulted her.

Sgt. John Shelton, the first officer who saw Mangum after the party, doubted her story. After talking with her in the Duke Hospital emergency room, he loudly announced, "I think she is lying."

Later, police showed Mangum photographs of 36 lacrosse players. She looked at more than three-quarters of the team but couldn't identify any players as her assailants.

If Mangum couldn't make an identification, forensic science could. Mangum said that her attackers did not wear condoms and that one and perhaps all three had ejaculated. A crime lab could identify attackers from the DNA in any semen, blood or hair left during a 30-minute attack.

On March 27, a Durham police investigator, Angela Ashby, drove to the State Bureau of Investigation laboratory in Raleigh and hand-delivered the DNA evidence, which can provide a direct, unchallenged link to a suspect. She handed over swabs that an emergency room doctor took from Mangum's body March 14, a few hours after the party.

Lab technicians would scrutinize the samples for semen, blood and saliva, and then see whether the DNA matched any of the swabs taken from the mouths of the 46 players. Nifong asked the lab to move the samples to the front of the line.

On the same day, Nifong started a media offensive. The News & Observer had broken the story of the team giving DNA samples and then published an interview with Mangum. Activists and neighborhood residents had responded with two protests outside the house where three lacrosse captains lived: a candlelight vigil and a raucous affair where protesters banged pots and held signs that read "Castrate" and "Get a Conscience, Not a Lawyer."

Nifong gave scores of interviews to television and newspaper reporters who called or showed up at his office. The coverage worried Bob Ekstrand, a Durham lawyer who represented dozens of team members. Ekstrand set up an appointment with Nifong on March 27.

The meeting started cordially. Ekstrand said he asked Nifong how he would make decisions. He urged the prosecutor not to do anything until the DNA test results came back.

Nifong ended the meeting abruptly. Ekstrand recalled Nifong's parting words: "If you've come here to ask me questions instead of telling me what you know about who did it, then we don't have anything to talk about. You're wasting my time. You tell all of your clients I will remember their lack of cooperation at sentencing. I hope you know if they didn't do it, they are all aiders and abettors, and that carries the same punishment as rape."

As he left, Ekstrand noticed several reporters milling in the hall outside Nifong's office.

A vacation surprise

Jackie Brown was at her vacation home on North Topsail Beach in late March when Nifong called, she said in an interview. Brown, a political insider who worked many election campaigns in Durham, had agreed to run his campaign.

Nifong told Brown he was going to be on the news, something with Duke lacrosse.

Brown was surprised: "I said, 'Hold it, do you have any idea what this could do to your campaign, good or bad?' He said no."

Brown told Nifong to keep quiet until they figured out how it would affect the election. She hung up the phone and turned on the television. As Brown channel surfed that evening, she saw her candidate on local news. She watched him on Fox News, her favorite network, and another national show. Brown tried calling Nifong on his cell phone and at his office, but he wasn't answering.

At dawn the next morning, Brown and her miniature dachshund, Daffany, headed back to Durham. She wanted to talk with her candidate.

This campaign had been unusual from the start. In April 2005, Nifong had been appointed by Gov. Mike Easley to fill Jim Hardin's unexpired term. Easley has said Nifong promised not to run for election. But he did, and he had strong opposition from former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black in the May primary.

When Nifong called Brown in the fall of 2005, looking for a campaign manager, Brown had never heard of the prosecutor. This was unusual for an insider who's well-connected with Durham's political organizations.

Brown agreed to meet him for lunch Jan. 2, 2006, at the downtown Marriott near the courthouse. Nifong showed up with his wife, Cy Gurney. As the women ate Caesar salads and Nifong tended to a steak sandwich, Gurney did most of the talking. Brown was struck by the first words out of Nifong's mouth.

"He said, 'I really don't want this job; I was the last one on the list. I just need three years and seven months for retirement. You won't have to worry about running another campaign for me.' "

Brown was taken aback: Did Nifong, then 55, really want to go through the hassle of a campaign? "He said, 'I know nothing about politics. That's why I need you to be campaign manager.' "

Four more years would make a big difference for Nifong's retirement. If he served five years as a district attorney, his 29 years as a regular state employee would apply to the more lucrative retirement plan for a district attorney; overnight, in April 2010, his annual pension would increase by at least $15,000 a year.

Brown signed on, with no idea that the political neophyte would become one of the nation's most famous prosecutors.

Grist for media mill

When Brown drove back from the beach, she found satellite trucks crowding the courthouse parking lot. Reporters and camera crews roamed the sixth-floor hallway outside Nifong's office, looking for an interview.

Nifong obliged, declaring that the rape was racially motivated. He ripped into the lacrosse players in an interview with The N&O: "I would like to think that somebody who was not in the bathroom has the human decency to call up and say, 'What am I doing covering up for a bunch of hooligans?' "

Seeing the crowd, Brown retreated to a corner and called Nifong several times on his cell phone, she said. No answer.

When Nifong left his office to go to the men's room, Brown maneuvered him into a corner so her back was to the cameras.

"What are you doing? Why don't you answer my calls?"

The television reporters had asked that he turn off the cell phone so it wouldn't ring during interviews, Nifong said.

"I said, 'You don't have any idea what the impact is going to be on your campaign.' He said, 'I'm getting a million dollars of free advertisements.'

"I left and didn't say another word."

Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or joseph.neff@newsobserver.com.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service