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Nifong faces disbarment by State Bar

RALEIGH -- The North Carolina State Bar will file an order to disbar Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.

The decision is the result of a five-day hearing in which the Bar accused Nifong of prosecutorial misconduct in his handling of the Duke lacrosse case. In announcing the decision, Disciplinary Hearing Commission Chair Lane Williamson called the case "a fiasco" and said that any sanction short of disbarment would have been inappropriate.

The district attorney was accused of making extrajudicial pretrial statements and withholding potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense team, among other charges. In announcing the penalty around 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Williamson said the case brought the importance of wielding prosecutorial power justly into sharp focus.

"Mr. Nifong, it must be said, for whatever reason-it appears to be out of self-interest, and self deception, not necessarily out of an evil motive-but his judgment was so clouded by his self-interest that he lost sight of that [responsibility] and wandered off the path of justice," he said. "We can draw no other conclusion but that those initial statements that he made were to further his political ambition."

Earlier in the afternoon, the three-person panel announced its decision that 27 of the 32 charges made against Nifong had been successfully proven by the prosecution.

In announcing the disbarment decision, Williamson said that though the indicted players and their families were the primary victims of Nifong's wrongdoing, the rest of the Duke men's lacrosse team, their coach, the University, the North Carolina justice system and honest prosecutors had also suffered as a result.

"We take no joy in this proceeding," said David Evans, father of indicted former player Dave Evans, Trinity '06. "It brings closure to a very sad period in our lives and we're gratified to the North Carolina criminal justice system for seeing to it that justice has been done."

The panel's ruling came after an unusual afternoon turn of events. After Williamson had announced the rulings on each charge, the hearing entered Phase II, in which each side offered testimony geared to help the panel decide on a punishment.

Lawyers for the Bar called the elder David Evans and Mary Ellen Finnerty-mother of indicted former player Collin Finnerty-as well as experienced lawyer Jerry Parnell. The defense, in turn, offered a sheaf of letters on Nifong's behalf and cited character testimony given earlier in the trial.

After deliberation had begun, however, Nifong said he thought disbarment was necessary and offered to hand over his license. Williamson said the panel was obliged to rule despite the offer, and after more deliberation handed down its sentence. Nifong did, however, forfeit his right to an appeal. Previously, while on the stand in his own defense Friday, he promised to step down from his position as district attorney.

Joe Cheshire, a lawyer who represented the younger Evans, said the move was a last-ditch attempt by the defendant to reclaim control over his fate.

"I've been at executions," he said. "It's kind of like the day before you're executed if you cut up your sheet and hang yourself so you're in control of your own destiny."

Cheshire said he was not surprised by the decision, but during an impromptu press conference outside the Court of Appeals building where the trial was held, he and other defense lawyers said the decision is a victory in the fight against prosecutorial conduct nationwide, but especially in the state.

"It is a great day for North Carolina," said attorney Wade Smith.

Cheshire said Nifong was only one example of an unfortunate trend and added that he hopes the ruling will serve to warn other wayward district attorneys.

"Until a prosecutor who was willing to cheat got disbarred or went to prison, [prosecutorial misconduct] would not end," he said. "[The decision] was, as the English say, spot-on and probably hard for him to hear. It's a shame he didn't listen to people who were trying to tell him that months ago."

They added that the case only resolved favorably due to fortuitous circumstances, and that with minor changes in the course of events, Evans, Finnerty and Reade Seligmann-a third indicted former player-might have each been sentenced to 30 years in jail.

Seligmann made a brief statement after the hearing thanking the people of North Carolina, special prosecutors Jim Coman and Mary Winstead and the Bar's legal team.

The day began with the wrap of Phase I of the trial, as each side made their closing arguments. Defense lawyers David Freedman and Dudley Witt each had lengthy and tense exchanges with Williamson about the validity of their claims. The defense did not deny that Nifong had acted improperly, but tried to convince the panel that his missteps were a result of negligence and not of intent to do wrong.

Although the decision was hailed by some as "closure," it is unlikely that the lacrosse story has ended. Judge Osmond Smith could charge Nifong with contempt of court-carrying with it penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment-for lying in the case. There may also be civil suits against him. Finally, Cooney and other lawyers today called for the United States Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the case.

President Richard Brodhead issued a statement Saturday evening lauding the disbarment and criticizing Nifong.

"At the end of the Attorney General's review in April and now the Bar's proceeding, one fact stares us in the face: the ordeal of the last 15 months was wholly unnecessary. It was not the result of reasonable differences of legal opinion or honest errors of judgment. Our students were accused by the community's senior law enforcement officer with no credible basis in fact," he said.

In a nod to criticisms leveled at his own administration's handling of the case, he added, "The actions Duke took caused consternation to many in the university family, which I profoundly regret."

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