DURHAM, N.C. – District Attorney Michael Nifong was stripped of his law license Saturday and banned from ever practicing law again for grossly mishandling a rape prosecution in which three Duke University lacrosse players were falsely accused.
A disciplinary panel of the North Carolina State Bar, saying Nifong had engaged in “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation,” found him guilty of withholding evidence, lying to judges and making prejudicial pretrial statements in the highly-charged case.
“This matter has been a fiasco,” said F. Lane Williamson, a Charlotte lawyer who headed the three-member panel.
After the convictions were announced but before penalties were imposed, Nifong said he would surrender his law license and forfeit his right to appeal. He indicated that he did not dispute the panel’s decision.
“He hopes this helps restore some of the confidence in the criminal justice system of North Carolina,” said Nifong’s lawyer, David Freedman.
The verdicts came more than a year after Nifong drew world attention to Durham by stating unequivocally that the three white players had gang-raped a black stripper while subjecting her to racial slurs. He called the players “a bunch of hooligans” and said they had committed one of the most heinous crimes in Durham’s history.
Nifong lost his license two months after the state’s attorney general declared the athletes innocent and called the district attorney a “rogue prosecutor” who had engaged in a “tragic rush to condemn.”
The panel deliberated just an hour before deciding that Nifong withheld exculpatory DNA evidence and lied about it to judges and defense lawyers as well as in written responses to the bar. The panel said his public comments before and after the players were indicted last spring prejudiced potential jurors and heightened “public condemnation of the accused.”
Nifong, who tearfully announced on the witness stand Friday that he would resign regardless of the verdict, sat Saturday with his chin on his hand, watching Williamson as the chairman stated the word “yes” 28 times – each indicating a guilty verdict on a specific count.
The verdicts brought further humiliation to Nifong, who had spent his entire professional life in the Durham district attorney’s office. Already vilified in opinion columns and on blogs, Nifong has now been certified by North Carolina’s legal profession as an outcast who sullied the reputation of the state’s legal system.