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Heafty price for justice (cont.)

Posted: Thursday April 12, 2007 12:01AM; Updated: Thursday April 12, 2007 11:29AM
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Critics say D.A. Mike Nifong was overzelous in charging three Duke players of rape and it could cost him his career.
Critics say D.A. Mike Nifong was overzelous in charging three Duke players of rape and it could cost him his career.

Sportswriters talk to a lot of agents, executives, owners. Many are lawyers. Every lawyer I know does everything in his power to control the conversation; words are their weapons, after all. Nifong is the first lawyer I've ever encountered who could not control his mouth. The first time I saw him in action was at a candidates' forum last April in the Durham County Courthouse. Under withering attack from his two opponents, Nifong had no poker face; he smirked and tugged at his right earlobe so much that it turned fire-alarm red. He then closed his remarks by shouting how he was "not going to allow Durham in the mind of the world to be a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl in Durham!" -- passing public judgment and making the case racial all at once. Five days later, with the hallway outside his office jammed with cameramen and reporters and the case's indictments about to be handed down, Nifong emerged with that same smirk, as if enjoying an especially delicious private joke.

"District Attorneys get thirsty, too," he said, dipping his head into the water fountain. "I'm just happy to see you all here."

But by January, what with the accused players' alibis and a drip-drip of leaked exculpatory evidence and the accuser's story shifting again, the wheels had fallen off. Nifong dropped the rape charge. He removed himself from the case after it had been revealed that he had kept vital DNA evidence from the defense. He is now facing ethics charges from the North Carolina State Bar. But it wouldn't be a shock if his motives are never understood. Over and over, lawyers and people from the players' camp, desperate to figure out Nifong, kept telling me that, perhaps, the source of his zeal was his lifelong hostility toward Duke University. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, after all. I barely listened; at the time, it seemed absurd to consider that a childish school rivalry could somehow be driving a rape prosecution. But at this point, it makes as much sense as anything.

"I don't know him," Coleman said. "I don't know what might have motivated this. But people who know him are surprised by his conduct, and he clearly went over a cliff. And he took a lot of people with him."

It's true. As Coleman says, the carnage around the Duke rape case resembles "a Civil War battlefield." All of them -- the city of Durham, Duke University and its self-immolating administration, the sport of lacrosse, former Duke head coach Mike Pressler, who was in town for a funeral Tuesday afternoon and addressed his old team for the first time, the seniors who lost their final season, the players who endured the jibes of professors and fellow students, even the accuser -- fell victim to Nifong's strange incompetence. All the parents, too. And, of course, the three accused -- Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann -- who looked equal parts relieved and enraged before the cameras Wednesday. They thanked their families and friends, declared themselves appalled by the justice system, stood there free and wondering if they'll ever be able to truly move on.

Cooper made sure to use a powerful word Wednesday: Innocent. Will it be enough for them? That's the only other matter his exoneration left unclear. Eventually, almost everyone else will have a chance to move on.

"They're going to be tagged for the rest of their lives as defendants in a rape case," Coleman said. "Even if the Attorney General says, 'We're absolutely, 100 percent certain no crime occurred,' they still were indicted for rape. That's now a fact. They will live under that cloud forever."

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