Attorney general to take Duke case

District attorney faces ethics complaint in handling of lacrosse scandal

January 14, 2007|By New York Times News Service

RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina's attorney general said yesterday that his office would immediately assume full control of the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case referred to him Friday by Michael B. Nifong, the Durham County district attorney.

"I wish I could tell you this case would be resolved quickly," Attorney General Roy Cooper, said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. "Since we have not been involved in the investigation and prosecution, all of the information will be new to our office. Any case with such serious criminal charges will require careful review."

Nifong asked Cooper to take over the prosecution, citing an ethics complaint he is facing from the North Carolina Bar Association because of public statements he has made about the case.

Nifong was disappointed at having to give up the case but felt that he had become more a hindrance than a help because of intense criticism of his handling of it, his lawyer, David B. Freedman, said Friday. Nifong and an aide met with the accuser in the case for two hours on Thursday.

Defense lawyers and families of the defendants welcomed the news that the case would be in the hands of the attorney general's office.

"We are taking a completely new, fresh look at this case, so anything could happen," Cooper said. "We are looking at all the facts. Whatever charges, if any, are appropriate, they will be pursued."

Cooper said his office would obtain the case files this week and then meet with defense lawyers and re-interview witnesses, including the accuser. He said he did not know whether a pretrial hearing scheduled for Feb. 5 would have to be postponed.

Cooper, 49, a Democrat, is a former legislator who wrote a crime victim's bill of rights.

He was elected attorney general in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote and re-elected in 2004 with 55 percent. He has said he will not run for re-election again, but there is speculation that he might follow the path of his predecessor, Michael F. Easley, and run for governor.

From the start, the Duke case has been politically charged by race and class. A black woman hired to strip at a Duke lacrosse team party March 13 accused three white students of gang rape. Protests erupted, and Nifong expressed with certainty that a crime had occurred.

But over the past 10 months, his case disintegrated as defense lawyers offered time-stamped photographs challenging the stripper's account, prosecution reports highlighting the lack of DNA evidence and inconsistencies in the woman's story.

Defense lawyers insisted that the woman, 28, is a false accuser and have painted Nifong, 55, as a renegade prosecutor with political motives.

Sexual offense and kidnapping charges are pending against Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y.; Reade W. Seligmann, of Essex Fells, N.J.; and David F. Evans, 23, of Bethesda.

The three men were initially charged with rape, but Nifong dropped the charge after the alleged victim told an investigator that she could not be sure what had penetrated her.

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