Duke Lacrosse Case DA Defends Actions

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor

Associated Press Writer

12:17 AM PST, October 31, 2006

DURHAM, N.C. — The district attorney prosecuting three Duke lacrosse players charged with rape insists that he and police have not mishandled the case and said his only regret was granting so many interviews early on.

"Could I have done things differently? Of course I could've done things differently," Mike Nifong told The Associated Press on Monday. "Can I do things differently in the future? Of course I can do things differently in the future. But at any time, I've got to do what I think is the right thing to do."

Nifong, running for re-election against two challengers who have attacked his handling of the case, obtained an indictment against three men accused of raping a stripper at a team party in March. The three have declared their innocence.

"I think that I have a responsibility to prosecute this case," Nifong said. "I think that really nothing about my view of the case and my view of how the case ultimately needs to be handled has been affected by any of the things that have occurred."

The 56-year-old Nifong, who has worked for Durham County's district attorney's office since 1978, thrust himself into the story in the days after the accusations became public, granting numerous newspaper and TV interviews as he prepared to face two challengers in May's Democratic primary -- an election he won.

His tone was decidedly aggressive, as Nifong called the players "hooligans" used to having "expensive lawyers" get them out of trouble. He denounced what he called a "blue wall of silence" that had supposedly formed around the perpetrators.

Speaking Monday, Nifong said he misunderstood the likely consequence of granting interviews. "Certainly what I was trying to do was to reassure the community, to encourage people with information to come forward. And that was clearly not the effect," he said.

Nifong's apparent indifference to the criticism angered defense attorney Joseph Cheshire, who represents one of the accused. Cheshire said Nifong's belief he "wouldn't look back and do any of that differently is astounding."

"I don't think that you could find any person educated in the law who would not second-guess many things that Mr. Nifong has done in this case," he said.

The latest questions about Nifong's handling of the case came last week, after he said he and his staff have yet to interview the accuser about the facts of the case, leaving that work to police. He said Monday his responsibility is to direct the investigation, not conduct it.

Experts differed on the wisdom of Nifong's decision. Former Denver prosecutor Norm Early, who now works with the National District Attorneys Association, said his office would file more than 4,000 cases a year and that he would only interview a handful of victims.

"It's not standard to talk to the victim in every case," he said. "The police department generally has a conversation with the victim and the law enforcement relays that information to the district attorney."

But for a case generating as much public scrutiny and with such strong claims of innocence from the defense, it makes sense for prosecutors to get involved, said Yale University law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr.

"Those claims of factual innocence alone should trigger some duty in the prosecutor's office to evaluate the merits of this case," he said.

The Duke case has divided a community and led to a debate about race, class and sex, as well as the culture of privilege for athletes at the prestigious private university.

Nifong said he occasionally receives pieces of hate mail -- "Some of it is, 'How can you sleep at night? You're a disgrace,'" he said -- but he said most people he has met while campaigning have been supportive. He said he's received letters of support from rape victims, which he said have meant the most.

"As a practical reality, almost anything the district attorney decides is going to make some people unhappy," he said. "It's not a position that you can afford to be terribly thin-skinned about because you have to understand that it's part of the job. You're not there to please people in the first place."