One day after North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed criminal charges against three former members of the men's lacrosse team, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong issued an apology Thursday for his handling of the case.
"It is my sincere desire that the actions of Attorney General Cooper will serve to remedy any remaining injury that has resulted from these cases," Nifong said in a statement. "I also understand that whenever someone has been wrongly accused, the harm caused by the accusations might not be immediately undone merely by dismissing them."
Nifong's statement came one day before his appearance today in front of the North Carolina State Bar to face ethics charges stemming from his role as prosecutor in the case.
Kevin Finnerty, father of former lacrosse player Collin Finnerty, released a statement Thursday afternoon in which he said Nifong's "attempt at an apology" was "disingenuous and insincere."
John Banzhaf, a professor at The George Washington University Law School and frequent commentator on the case, said Nifong's concession does not exonerate him because his behavior was patterned.
"It wasn't just one mistake," Banzhaf said. "He did this whole series of things over and over again.... You don't wipe all that out with a, 'Whoops, I'm sorry.'"
Despite the embattled district attorney's apology, several experts said further legal action could ensue.
Although Nifong is entitled to prosecutorial immunity-which would not shield him from charges of misconduct if lawyers prove his involvement in the police investigation-the accused players could potentially sue the district attorney for damages, Banzhaf said.
Prosecutorial immunity protects Nifong within the confines of the courtroom, but statements he made to the media, his alleged involvement with the police lineup and his withholding of exculpatory evidence could all be grounds for a lawsuit, Banzhaf added.
Although Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans, Trinity '06, have incurred more than $3 million in legal fees, suing Nifong might not be financially viable, said Professor Paul Carrington of the Duke School of Law.
"Does he have any money?" Carrington said. "Maybe he's got some property.... If he's guilty of abuse of his office, that would certainly be a wrong that would be compensable for people."
Law Professor James Coleman who has publicly spoken out against Nifong's conduct on several occasions, said the players have suffered a damaged reputation, endured emotional anguish and lost a year of their lives-for two of them, a year in college; for another, a year of his career.
"This is an art, not a science," Coleman said. "My guess is that they will seek fairly substantial damages. I also expect they would seek punitive damages-as well as compensatory-to punish [Nifong] for egregious behavior."
Jim Cooney, Seligmann's defense attorney, told The Associated Press that he will advise his client's family about their options, but does not expect a lawsuit in the near future. "I think it's fair to say they're angry," Cooney said of the families. "It's an anger of, 'What part of innocent don't you understand?' It's not, 'We're going to take your house and pension plan.' There's no plan to seek revenge against anybody."
Although the players could bring a substantive lawsuit against the accuser, Carrington said it seems unlikely that she would have the resources to pay damages.
"You can't get blood out of a stone," he said. "There's no point in suing her. Would they win? Yeah, they'd win, but then what do you have?"
Banzhaf said the University would have just cause for a lawsuit against Nifong for damaging the reputations of both the men's lacrosse team and the school itself.
"Unquestionably, Duke's reputation has been very seriously hurt and it was done by Mr. Nifong, and the [attorney general] and the State Bar indicate that it was done unlawfully and apparently with improper motive," he said. "It does seem that not only did he do wrong, he did wrong for an improper motive, and that would be political-for his running for office."
Banzhaf also said the University should worry that Nifong could unjustly target Duke students in future cases.
"Duke ought to come out and call for Mr. Nifong to resign because here's a guy who now has a strong animus against Duke students and find a case to vindicate himself and say, 'See, these kids are no good,'" Banzhaf said.
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