There’s plenty of blame to pass around in the Duke lacrosse case: to the lacrosse players, who carried on a tradition of out-of-control partying that led the university in disciplinary actions; to the university, for not taking seriously either the team’s sorry discipline record or the accusations of a dancer who performed at the infamous party; to the national media, which have sensationalized the issues; and to Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, who has made mistake after misstep after misstatement in the case.
The lacrosse players have found out the kind of repercussions their behavior can have. The university has rallied to address both the specifics of the way it handled the team’s behavior and the larger questions about the atmosphere on campus. The national media haven’t slowed their virulent drum beat (particularly the obnoxious talking heads on cable), while local papers have done a good job digging out the issues. But Nifong, those local stories make clear, has failed to recognize the extent of his mistakes, correct them, and reassure the people of Durham (and around the world) that justice here is fair and unbiased.
For that reason, he should step down from the case and ask either the state Attorney General’s office to take over or ask the Administrative Office of the Courts to appoint a prosecutor from another district.
The last straw was the Dec. 15 hearing at which defense attorneys all but proved Nifong lied about his knowledge of a DNA test that could discover evidence down to a single cell on the accuser’s body and underwearand found the DNA of unidentified men but none from the accused (or any lacrosse players). That was withheld from the defense for months, and as N&O reporters Joseph Neff and Benjamin Niolet showed in a recap of Nifong’s statements about the tests, Nifong has had three different stories about when he knew about the evidence. That was on top of questions already raised about his prejudicial statements early on and the photo line-up procedures used.
In a rare interview last month with The New York Times, Nifong acknowledged that the DNA evidence was “potentially exculpatory” and he should have given it to the defense long before. He also said he regretted calling the lacrosse players “a bunch of hooligans” after the case broke open. But he said he would continue pursuing the case as long as the victim resolved to go forward.
The State Bar is investigating complaints against him and the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys has said he should recuse himself “in the interest of justice.”
There is no question that the defense is making the most of the state’s recently passed law requiring prosecutors to open all evidence to the defense before the trial (passed as a result of prosecutorial misconduct). And, for the sake of the alleged victim, Nifong is right to pursue charges he believes are credible. But his actions have left too many doubts that the defendants have received fair treatment. If he truly wants to see justice done, he will recuse himself.