His law license lost and reputation in tatters, Mike Nifong seemingly can fall no further. But the disgraced prosecutor who committed “intentional prosecutorial misconduct” in his pursuit of the Duke lacrosse rape case faces an uncertain — and likely troubled — future.
The falsely accused players and their families, having racked up millions of dollars in legal bills, appear likely to file civil lawsuits against the disbarred prosecutor. Their attorneys want a judge to consider holding Nifong in criminal contempt for lying to the court.
“Some people will take that as being mean-spirited and kicking somebody when they’re down,” defense attorney Joseph Cheshire said Sunday. “But we believe that this issue is enormously important and it carries significant precedent and (the judge) ought to be the one to make that decision because it happened in his court.”
Nifong was disbarred Saturday, a ruling that came one day after he stunned his staff and own attorneys by announcing through tears he planned to resign as Durham County’s district attorney. In imposing punishment, a disciplinary committee called Nifong’s prosecution of Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann a politically motivated “fiasco.”
The five-day ethics trial ended Nifong’s three-decade legal career, which he spent entirely as a prosecutor in Durham County. He was generally viewed as an honest lawyer before taking over the case of a woman who told police she was raped at a March 2006 lacrosse team party where she was hired to perform as a stripper.
Aware that DNA evidence had identified genetic material from several men — but no members of the lacrosse team — in the accuser’s underwear and body, and that police were unable to place one of the players at the scene, Nifong still sought and won indictments against Seligmann and Finnerty in April 2006.
He indicted Evans the next month. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office took over the case in January, later declared that the trio were “innocent” victims of Nifong’s “tragic rush to accuse.”
Nifong himself agreed with the decision to take away his law license. “He wants this over with,” said his attorney, David Freedman, who added that Nifong expects to send in his letter of resignation this week.
That probably won’t be the end. Shortly after Nifong was disbarred, Seligmann attorney Jim Cooney put it simply: “I don’t think any of us are done with Mr. Nifong yet.”
Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III, who oversaw part of the case, has already reminded Nifong he could still impose a punishment. The disciplinary committee ruled Saturday that Nifong lied when he told Smith and another judge on several occasions last summer that he knew of no information helpful to the defense that he hadn’t turned over.
Cheshire said there is “certainly a significant probability” the players and their families will file civil lawsuits. While such lawsuits could seek damages from the city of Durham, the police department or the accuser, it is a certainty they would name Nifong as a defendant.
It’s not clear how much money the families could get out of Nifong, but the career civil servant’s financial disclosure statement suggests it isn’t much. His only listed income is his salary of about $110,000. Aside from his Durham home and some unspecified real estate in western North Carolina, Nifong appears to have no significant assets outside of any mutual funds and retirement accounts.
“It was a very poignant and sad day because you never want to see a human being destroy himself,” Cheshire said. “But it was a day that needed to happen for a lot of reasons — not the least of which was to send a message to people that prosecute cases that this activity absolutely will not be tolerated.
“I think for the Evanses, they’ll now be able to move on. Will they ever forget the horror of this year? No. Will it always be with us in some ways? Yes. But I think we’ll be able to move forward.”