The race for Durham district attorney has grown into a referendum on incumbent Mike Nifong’s handling of the Duke lacrosse case. The story is now all too familiar: Members of the Duke lacrosse team hired exotic dancers to perform at a party in March at the lacrosse house, an infamous party spot adjacent to East Campus. When one of the dancers claimed she had been raped and sodomized in a bathroom, Nifong launched a high-profile investigation of the team, which culminated in the indictment of three players: Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann. The media swarmed. Madness ensued.
Evidence has come to light that Nifong and the Durham Police Department may have mishandled the case. Nifong publicly condemned the defendants before completing his investigation and the cops sidestepped department procedures for the administration of photo line-ups. The district attorney has made amends but, to the chagrin of many, he persists with his prosecution. Maybe he continues for fear of the political fallout from quitting. Maybe he’s taking a principled stand. Maybe he has a few tricks up his sleeve. Only Nifong can say, and as everyone knows by now, he’s no longer speaking to media.
An insightful profile in The News & Observer sheds some light, however. The story recounts Nifong’s 1994 prosecution of a similar case in which a woman accused a man of raping her at gunpoint. Nifong stuck with the case despite little physical evidence because he believed in a woman’s right to bring her alleged assailant to trial. The jury acquitted the defendant in that case. Only time will tell what happens with this one.
One thing is certain: Nifong has a target on his back. Since his primary victory over Freda Black and Keith Bishop, two candidates have emerged who argue that the prosecutor’s mistakes with the Duke lacrosse case should cost him his job. Lewis A. Cheek, a Durham County commissioner, is running a strange campaign: He gathered almost 10,000 signatures to get his name on the November ballot but, after a period of indecision, announced he would not accept the position if elected. He’s asking voters to support him so that, upon victory, he can step aside for Gov. Mike Easley to appoint a new D.A. It’s a crazy scheme that undermines the democratic process. How could anyone know whether or not the person the governor would appoint would do any better than Nifong?
Republican Party Chairman Steve Monks is running as an unaffiliated write-in candidate and is a much better choice for voters who feel that Nifong’s missteps merit his removal. Monks is a private practice attorney who provides pro bono legal counsel at El Centro Hispano in Durham and El Centro Latino in Carrboro. He stands against the death penalty, stating in his Independent questionnaire that history has shown the death penalty to be arbitrarily and capriciously sought. It’s not an effective deterrent to crime, he says, and there’s a possibility that an innocent person could be executed.
We’re sticking with the endorsement we made for the April primary: Mike Nifong. Butch Williams, a defense lawyer representing an unindicted lacrosse player, stated it well: “It seems to be unfortunate that the man is being judged for a lifetime job on one set of facts,” he told The N&O. “We don’t have a school to tell you how to handle crisis situations, and he was very new to the situation at the time. It caused a tremendous amount of criticism, but it shouldn’t take away from 27 years of public service.”District Court Judge, District 14
The primary narrowed the field from four candidates to two in this race for retiring Judge Richard Chaney’s seat. Nancy E. Gordon and Anita Smith were the top vote getters. We still support Gordon, a family law attorney whose expertise is highly regarded across the state. Her mastery of the complexities of family law make up her relative lack of criminal experience, and she will be a welcome addition to the court. Anita Smith is a general practice attorney who, observers say, doesn’t have the procedural knowledge for the job.District Court Judge, District 14
Incumbent Judge Ann McKown, the top vote-getter, and attorney Tracy Hicks Barley moved on from the spring primary. Our endorsement of Barley in the primary spurred an unprecedented level of response from lawyers in the community who felt we’d made a mistake in our portrayal of McKown. We noted McKown’s great work in the community but said her slow decision-making impedes courthouse progress. McKown’s supporters, most of them lawyers who’ve appeared before McKown in family court, praised the judge’s thoughtfulness, sensitivity and fair decision-making. Many also questioned Barley’s qualifications, pointing out that the attorney has missed deadlines herself. Still, we believe we made the right decision and support Tracy Hicks Barley.