Published: Apr 14, 2007 10:03 AM
Modified: Apr 16, 2007 04:54 AM
Mike Nifong found out about the case that now threatens his career March 23, 2006, when he stopped by the office copier and found a court order demanding DNA samples from 46 Duke lacrosse players. An escort service dancer told police that three men at a team party had dragged her into a bathroom and raped her anally, vaginally and orally for 30 minutes, according to the order.
The Durham district attorney's reaction, he later told lawyer Jim Cooney: "Holy crap, what is going on?"
The next day, Nifong told Durham police he was taking over. At 9 a.m. March 24, a police captain told the senior investigator, Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, that "Nifong was going to be running and prosecuting this case. ... Go through Mr. Nifong for any directions as to how to conduct matters in this case."
It was an unusual move for a prosecutor, but there's no evidence that the police challenged him. The case, however, was already in trouble.
The 27-year-old complainant, Crystal Gail Mangum, couldn't identify her alleged attackers. She had given at least six conflicting accounts. And the first officer who encountered her didn't believe her story.
Nifong forged ahead in what became a single-minded quest to support the accuser's account, not a mission to discover the truth. His pursuit ended in January when the district attorney, facing charges from the State Bar, removed himself from the case.
The final collapse came Wednesday, when Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann innocent.
A News & Observer examination of Nifong's handling of the case, based on documents and dozens of interviews, adds new insights about the investigation's focus on shoring up Mangum's claims. Nifong ignored contrary facts, withheld evidence favorable to the accused and refused to discuss the case with defense lawyers.
His lead investigator, Linwood Wilson, pressured witnesses and produced different timelines and accounts to support Mangum's shifting statements.
There is no evidence that Nifong or any investigator challenged Mangum to explain the contradictions in her versions of what happened at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. Nor did they speak with the doctor who conducted the pelvic examination hours after Mangum said she had been raped.
Baffling those who knew him along with the millions of people around the world who came to know his name, Nifong stuck with Mangum's stories. As he fought to win the Democratic nomination for district attorney, he made a series of decisions and inflammatory statements that propelled the case into an international scandal. It turned three college students into criminal suspects and brought scorn on Durham, Duke and almost every other institution involved.
Nifong, who has made few public statements since last spring, declined to be interviewed for this report.Not well known
In March of last year, few people outside the Durham courthouse had heard of Mike Nifong.
He was a career civil servant; prosecuting had been his only job since graduating from law school in 1978. A conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, he had boasted about a career of high ethics.
Nifong had a reputation as a sharp lawyer but was also known as abrasive, vindictive and prone to volcanic tantrums. He hadn't tried a serious felony case since 1999, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A new district attorney, he had never dealt with the swarms of reporters who descend on a major story.
By the time Nifong took the documents off the copier March 23, Durham police were having trouble with the case.