Nifong sends in his license

The former Durham district attorney vents as a panel reviewing police work in the lacrosse case inches along

Staff WritersAugust 15, 2007 

One form of resolution in the Duke lacrosse case came last week when former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong mailed his law license to the N.C. State Bar, ending his legal career.

Another form will have to wait. It could be weeks before a committee even meets again to discuss the police department's handling of the case, let alone finishes its report.

Nifong left with a parting shot, mailing his license with a note decrying "the fundamental unfairness" of how the bar had treated him.

The bitterness in his letter, dated Aug. 7, contrasted with his statements in June, when the bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission ordered him stripped him of his law license for intentionally and repeatedly lying and cheating during his prosecution of rape charges against three Duke lacrosse players.

Near the end of the June hearing, Nifong said through his attorney that the State Bar had treated him fairly and that he would not appeal the verdict.

Attorney David Freedman told the disciplinary panel: "He has told me that he believes this has been a fair and full hearing of the facts, that he believes disbarment is the appropriate punishment in this case."

The State Bar charged Nifong with 20 violations of the ethics rules. In an oral ruling at the trial's end, the disciplinary panel found him guilty of 11 counts. When the panel later issued its official written order, one count was missing, that Nifong ordered a DNA lab director to report only matches between rape kit evidence and specific people. As a result, the lab did not report that DNA from other men had been found on the accuser. Duke law professor Robert Mosteller, who is writing two law review articles on the case, noticed that fact and sent an e-mail message to the State Bar, trying to reconcile the discrepancy:

Lane Williamson, a Charlotte lawyer who headed the disciplinary panel, amended the order to include the 11th count. The change irked Nifong, who did not return phone calls Tuesday:

"Mr. Williamson's e-mail assertion that the addition of a new conclusion of law based on the request of a Duke University law professor is merely a 'clerical correction' is preposterous beyond belief, and is further evidence of the fundamental unfairness with which this entire procedure has been conducted," Nifong wrote in his Aug. 7 letter to the bar.

As for the critique of the police department's performance, Durham Mayor Bill Bell expected a report by now. Willis Whichard, the former N.C. Supreme Court justice heading the committee, called that timetable "completely unrealistic."

"Unless you want to do a flippant job with it, and I don't do things that way," he added. "I want to do it as expeditiously as possible but consistent with being both thorough and fair."

Wade Barber, a former Superior Court judge and district attorney who is serving as the panel's counsel, needs more time to review the massive case file. He's supposed to come up with the questions that the 12-member panel must answer through interviews with police administrators and investigators.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Barber declined to estimate when he and law partner Jeremy Falcone would finish their work.

Bell, who proposed the committee in late May and envisioned a report by August, said Tuesday he wasn't worried.

"We said from the start we didn't want to sacrifice thoroughness for speed," Bell said. "I don't want anybody to rush to judgment to try to meet some artificial timetable."

Council member Thomas Stith III, who is challenging Bell for the mayor's seat, said the committee needs to move quickly.

"The citizens of Durham certainly deserve answers in the near term," he said. "It's not a new investigation. It's a review of an existing record. Given the expertise involved in this case, I would hope we would see timely response to some of the main questions that are out there."

Those main questions focus on the chain of command, including the role of Chief Steve Chalmers during the investigation, and how Nifong gained so much control over the investigation of rape charges against Dave Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed the charges and declared all three innocent.

Barber and Whichard both pointed out that there is an immense amount of material attached to a case that dragged on for more than a year. "I can assure you there's no dillydallying going on," Whichard said.

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

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