DURHAM — DURHAM -- They've run off one public defender, been chastised by a new defense attorney and faced a threat of jail time by a judge.
But the Friends of Crystal Mangum insist they're on her side, trying to protect her from a corrupt judicial system that they say aims to punish her for accusing three Duke lacrosse players of rape four years ago. Attorney General Roy Cooper concluded there was no rape, and former District Attorney Mike Nifong lost his law license over it, but the Friends believe Mangum's story.
Now facing multiple felony charges related to a domestic violence call Feb. 17, Mangum is free on $100,000 bail. Her trial is scheduled to begin as early as Monday.
Police say Mangum scratched and punched her boyfriend, Milton Walker, and damaged his car. She also took Walker's clothes, placed them in a bathtub and lit them on fire - with him, her three children and two police officers still in the home, according to arrest warrants. Mangum declined to comment for this story but has denied the charges.
Ed Clark, Mangum's publicist, said she had complained about Walker's behavior earlier in the day and that Walker was the aggressor. Clark said that when officers realized she was the Duke lacrosse accuser, they focused on her. "She did go kind of bananas when the cops were taking her away, but I would have, too, if a man was attacking me and I'm the one that's going to jail," he said.
Citizens and lawyers
Initially, police charged her with attempted murder, and a judge set bail at $1 million. Now facing lesser charges, Mangum eventually lost the right to have contact with her children because of pre-trial release violations.
"It's almost like a form of lynching, what's happened to her," said Myra Kinderknecht of Fayetteville, a Friends member. "Everything that has happened to her screams white power, black oppression."
Mangum's own defense lawyers say such strident claims only complicate her criminal case. Steven Kohn, a leading expert on political prisoners, said the U.S. Constitution invites citizen activism, but the pretrial publicity it generates often hurts a defendant.
"The law has very constrained procedures that the general public or citizen activist groups won't understand or won't respect," he said. "The citizens are frustrated that the lawyer is being a lawyer and not an activist, and the lawyer is frustrated that the citizens don't understand the law."
Friends members carried out similar advocacy for murder convicts Michael Peterson in Durham and James Johnson in Wilson. Kohn said citizens defense committees have a long history in the United States, from the American Civil Liberties Union, which formed to protect conscientious objectors during World War I, to the citizens who supported O.J. Simpson's defense in Los Angeles.
The Friends of Crystal Mangum is an offshoot of another group, the Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong, the district attorney who prosecuted the Duke lacrosse players. Friends founder Douglas Register said authorities are persecuting Mangum to further discredit her and help their defense in a civil lawsuit brought by all 38 lacrosse players against Duke and the city of Durham..
"[Her conviction] might possibly allow the city to settle for a lower amount," he said. "The families might be appeased. It might close the door."
The Friends accuse Mangum's attorneys of pressuring her to plead guilty. Clayton Jones, her former lawyer, said that's not true.
Attorney Mani Dexter, appointed by the public defender's office because of Mangum's indigence, declined to comment.
Mangum has gone before judges several times this year, adjusting the conditions of her pre-trial release. Each time, members of the Friends or the associated Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong have been there, often addressing the judges directly, much to the chagrin of Mangum's lawyers.
"No one in the Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong has ever even been to a day of law school," said Jones, an assistant public defender. "They've watched a lot of TV - Law & Order, CSI - and think that that's how we practice law in the state of North Carolina."
'Out of order'
During a break in a hearing in late August, when Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch was preparing to deal with an unrelated case, Friends member and Nifong supporter Victoria Peterson tried to speak to him across the waist-high wall that divides the courtroom.
"No, ma'am," Fitch said sternly. "You're out of order right now. That matter is not before me."
When Fitch asked how long it would take a witness to retrieve a file from his office across the street from the courthouse, Peterson spoke up.
"He's talking to you," Peterson told the man, who had not immediately answered the judge.
"Ma'am, you are not a lawyer, and you are not a party to this case," Fitch said. "If I hear one more outburst out of you, I'm going to send you to the Durham County jail."
Since then, the Friends have put forth a hand-written confession from Walker saying he set his own clothes on fire, and filed a complaint with Durham County Department Social Services for telling a pre-trial release officer that Mangum's children had been living with her against a judge's order.
"You have no idea what impact these things will have on Crystal's case," Dexter chided the Friends in an e-mail. "When you take the consideration ... out of the equation, you make a mess."
One lawyer down
Conflict with the Friends drove assistant public defender Clayton Jones off the case in July.
Jones said his first interactions with the Friends were positive. But eventually he told them to stop calling after they started demanding evidence from Mangum's case file.
"They wanted information that they were not privileged to," Jones said. "We would discuss pertinent matters with her case, and she would literally walk right out the door ... and give them her whole discovery."
This past summer, after the Friends held a press conference at Mangum's house, Jones told Mangum that if she didn't like his advice, she should find a new lawyer. The next week, she asked a judge to appoint a new one.
Jones said the Friends are taking advantage of Mangum.
"They are in my opinion using Crystal Mangum's name and all the things associated with her to promote their own agenda," he said.
No single ideology unites the Friends, so it's unclear exactly why they've coalesced around Mangum or why they don't trust her lawyers. The Duke lacrosse case is the latest in a long line of causes taken up by members of the Nifong committee and the Friends.
Victoria Peterson is a failed candidate for public office. She has protested abortion clinics, and railed against causes ranging from urban chickens to homosexuality. She is best known as an advocate for jobs and work skills for inner-city men.
Register said he got involved in the lacrosse case because he has suffered from mental illness and felt the players' defense lawyers had exploited Mangum's illness in attacking her story. He also felt critics had slandered N.C. Central University, an alma mater he and Mangum share. Register has fought publicly against Jewish menorahs on city property and a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit because it might support "Palestinian oppression."
"Any high-profile case attracts people to that case who might have other agendas. That is a fact," Register said. "[The Friends] are community activists. They believe that there is an inequity, that there is an unevenness in justice."
Milo Pyne, who knows Friends member Steven Matherly through their work together with the progressive Durham People's Alliance, called the Mangum advocacy "quixotic."
"Even though I have sympathy for Ms. Mangum and Mr. Nifong," Pyne said, "I don't know how getting involved in that issue at this late date would do anybody any good, or help the cause of progressive politics in Durham."
But Michael Page, who as Durham County Commissioners chair has often encountered Peterson and Register, doesn't fault the Friends for trying to help Mangum.
"The lady has gone through a whole lot in the past few years," he said. "It's a humanitarian evidently stepping out to make sure she gets treated fairly. I don't think anybody's trying to hurt anybody in this process, but I think they're just trying to make sure that she gets justice."
email@example.com or 919-932-8760