A case starts to unravel

District Attorney Mike Nifong brusquely rejects defense lawyers' overtures and an offer to share information. The emerging evidence does not support his certainty

Staff WriterApril 15, 2007 

Lawyer Joseph B. Cheshire V speaks to reporters on the steps of the Durham County courthouse April 10, 2006, telling them that no DNA was found on Crystal Mangum. At right is defense lawyer Bill Thomas.

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY CHUCK LIDDY

  • Audio: Bill Thomas


    Defense attorney Bill Thomas recounts his April 4 meeting with Mike Nifong, where Nifong described the accuser as credible and intelligent.


    Thomas recalls organizing a group of veteran lawyers to visit Nifong and urge him to look at evidence that no rape occurred, and to slow the rush to indictment.

  • MARCH 16 AND MARCH 21, 2006: Crystal Mangum looks at photographs of 36 of the 46 lacrosse suspects. She identifies none of them as the three men who attacked her. She said they used the names Adam, Brett and Matt. MARCH 31: Mike Nifong orders Durham police investigators to show Mangum photos taken by police of the 46 players. APRIL 4: Mangum looks at the 46 photos and identifies four men as her assailants. APRIL 11: Nifong meets with Mangum. He later tells a judge they did not talk about the case. APRIL 12: Nifong files a motion under seal saying he plans to indict Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty.

During the first half of April 2006, lawyers for Duke lacrosse players often sat around a large table in Bill Thomas' second-floor conference room, a stone's throw from the Durham County courthouse. Conversation invariably turned to which players would be indicted. "We guessed it would be the three residents of the house," Thomas said. "But we really had no clue. None."

The lawyers thought District Attorney Mike Nifong was unpredictable. Stunned by his public statements, which grew more strident, defense lawyer Joseph B. Cheshire V tried to talk with the prosecutor.Cheshire didn't know that Nifong harbored a visceral dislike for him; all four of Cheshire's namesakes were lawyers, and Nifong often referred to Cheshire sneeringly as "Joseph Blount Cheshire the Fifth."

Cheshire wasn't prepared for the prosecutor's response to his request to talk, which Nifong's paralegal dictated to Cheshire's paralegal: Nifong "is not going to talk with any attorneys while there have been no charges filed, and ... if Joe Cheshire feels that his client should be charged, then he should tell the police department."

Behind the bluster was a crumbling case. Between March 28 and 30, forensic biologists at the State Bureau of Investigation had tested swabs taken from Crystal Mangum's body. They found no presence of semen, blood or saliva. SBI phone logs show the laboratory workers spoke with Nifong on March 30.

As the chances of a genetic identification dwindled, Nifong pursued an old-style tactic. During the previous two weeks, Mangum had viewed photos of 36 players and did not identify any as her assailants.

On March 31, Nifong met with the two investigators in the case, Sgt. Mark Gottlieb and Investigator Benjamin Himan, to discuss how to use the new mug shots police had taken of the 46 white members of the lacrosse team. Mangum had said her attackers were white.

According to Gottlieb's report on the case: "Mr. Nifong suggested we put together the mug shot style photographs into a group since we are under the impression the players at the party were members of the Duke Lacrosse Team and instead of doing a lineup or photographic array, we would merely ask the victim to look at each picture and see if she recalled seeing the individuals at the party."

Against policy

This procedure violated Durham Police Department policy requiring five photographs of "fillers" -- people not associated with the case -- for each picture of a suspect. The 46 lacrosse players were all suspects, so the photo array should have had five fillers for every player, 276 photos in all. Gottlieb promptly discussed Nifong's procedure with his supervisors, Capt. Jeff Lamb and Lt. Michael Ripberger. No one vetoed Nifong's plan.

Lamb, Chief Steve Chalmers and the rest of the Durham Police Department have refused to answer questions about the lineup or the handling of the case.

The policy also said officers unfamiliar with the case should run the lineup, to avoid the risk of suggesting whom to pick.

Despite the policy, Gottlieb, the senior investigator on the case, conducted the lineup late on the morning of April 4. Mangum picked out four men as her assailants: Matt Wilson, Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and Dave Evans. Previously, Mangum had told Gottlieb that three men assaulted her. Nifong's files show no evidence that he, Gottlieb or police sought to sort out the discrepancy.

Gottlieb and Investigator Michele Soucie went directly to Nifong's office to brief him on the results of the identification process at 1:21 p.m.

Minutes after that session, defense lawyer Bill Thomas stopped at Nifong's office and requested a meeting. Thomas had known him since Nifong started working as a Durham prosecutor. The two had faced off in many serious cases, and while tempers had flared on both sides, the two always maintained a professional relationship. When Nifong declared he was running for district attorney, Thomas was one of the first to back him, contributing $1,000 to his campaign in January 2006.

Thomas had concluded the rape charges were false after spending an afternoon with his client, lacrosse captain Brett Thompson. Thomas worried that the Durham police might have fed bad information to Nifong. Thomas asked Nifong to investigate fully before bringing charges. He offered to share facts and evidence with the prosecutor.

Thomas said Nifong wouldn't listen: "He said that he had personally interviewed her and had spoke with her at length about this case, and that he fully believed every word she said about this incident, and that he knew a lot more about this case than I did, and that he was going to proceed as he saw fit."

Nifong was smug and self-assured, Thomas said: "I had 27 years of experience with him, and he was looking me in the eye. He said he had interviewed her, he discussed the details of the case, he believed her and that my view of her as perhaps being a call girl working for an escort service, running around making things up for financial gain, was absolutely false. ... He went on to say what a wonderful person she was. He said she was fully believable, she was intelligent, articulate ... and telling a convincing story about what happened."

Nifong didn't tell Thomas that he knew Mangum and her family. In 1992, one of her uncles who owned a small grocery store in Durham was slain in a robbery. The case dragged on for three years, but finally the killer was tried and convicted.

Nifong was the prosecutor, and the case earned him the Mangum family's confidence, which would have helped Crystal Mangum feel comfortable with Nifong in the Duke case, according to her mother, her brother and a family friend.

"The whole family knew him and trusted him because of that case," said Delois Burnette, a minister who has known the Mangums for decades. "People had confidence in him that he would do us right because he had prosecuted that case."

Later on the afternoon of April 4, after meeting with Thomas, Nifong talked with Soucie, the investigator, on the telephone and instructed her to find evidence to back Mangum's story. He instructed the investigator "to nail down what victim did on the day before arriving at 610 N. Buchanan so we can show that she did not receive trauma prior to incident -- with witnesses."

Her driver interviewed

The police did as instructed: On April 6, they brought in Jarriel Johnson, a Raleigh man who drove Mangum around the Triangle on the weekend before the lacrosse party. Johnson said he took Mangum to at least three hotel rooms in Raleigh and Durham, and a night performing at a Hillsborough strip club.

Mangum had told police one encounter involved a couple and the use of a small vibrator. Those hotel encounters could have explained the only abnormal finding from Mangum's pelvic examination at the Duke emergency room hours after the lacrosse party: diffuse swelling of the vaginal walls.

Johnson and Mangum gave handwritten statements. Mangum's differed substantially from her previous accounts to doctors, nurses and police. She portrayed a more violent attack and painted Kim Roberts, the second dancer, as a fellow victim. Previously, she had said Roberts stole her money.

On April 11, Nifong met with Mangum and his investigators. The district attorney had serious problems going into the meeting: Records show that Mangum had given a half-dozen or more accounts that conflicted. She had picked out four attackers April 4 but had told police and doctors that three men attacked her. She said Evans, who was clean-shaven, had a mustache. And her April responses differed from all of her March responses.

Mangum had said that no condoms were used and that at least one, if not all, of her attackers ejaculated. The SBI found no semen, blood or saliva from what she said was a vicious 30-minute assault. She had told a nurse at Duke she had one drink that evening, but she told doctors at UNC Hospitals that "she was drunk and had a lot of alcohol that night."

All this could have prompted a lot of questions. But Nifong later told a judge that Mangum was too traumatized to speak: "No statements were made by Crystal Mangum, and no questions were asked of her regarding this case, which is a fact."

Nifong later told a judge that he had never discussed the case with her at all, flatly contradicting Thomas' account of their April 4 meeting.

Thomas, meanwhile, was putting together a delegation to meet with Nifong. He chose the other lawyers he thought Nifong would most likely listen to: James D. "Butch" Williams Jr., a highly regarded Durham defense lawyer; and Wade Smith of Raleigh, the cordial dean of the North Carolina defense bar.

Smith did most of the talking. "Please slow down," he said to Nifong.

Smith asked for a dialogue and said the defense lawyers would open their files and share with Nifong all the evidence they had gathered. They hoped he would see that the charges were false.

Nifong put his hands over his ears, Smith said. So he let Nifong speak.

'I know a lot more'

"Gentlemen, I know a lot more about this case than any of you do, and I'm going to proceed as I see fit."

The meeting had lasted less than 10 minutes. As the lawyers stood to leave, Nifong grew visibly angry and launched into a tirade: "And by the way, you can tell that [expletive] Cheshire that ..."

Williams cut Nifong off: "Don't even go there. We don't want to hear about Joe."

As the lawyers walked down the hallway to the elevators, they shook their heads. There was no talking with Nifong. He was going to obtain indictments, and nothing would stop him. The lawyers did not know whom he would indict; they thought the most likely candidates were the three captains who lived in the house.

They were wrong. Two days earlier, Nifong had filed a motion under seal with Superior Court Judge Ronald Stephens. Nifong would indict Reade Seligmann, a sophomore, and Collin Finnerty, a freshman. The defense lawyers had considered them to be the least likely candidates.

(Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.)

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

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