The lives of three Duke University undergraduates and members of the lacrosse team were almost destroyed by the Durham County District Attorney, Michael B. Nifong. A woman who was hired to perform at a team party as a stripper and exotic dancer accused these young men of rape. The accused students were indicted by a grand jury which was apparently not told that the undergarments of the woman had semen and DNA from at least four men that did not match that of any of the three Duke students charged with the crime.
District Attorney Nifong was told of the results of the lab tests, according to the DNA specialist used by the District Attorney. The specialist testified at a hearing held this week by the North Carolina State Bar Association Disciplinary Panel. The criminal law in North Carolina and elsewhere requires that exculpatory evidence in the possession of the District Attorney be turned over expeditiously to the defense counsel. According to the June 14 edition of Newsday, “DNA specialist Brian Meehan said he did not include that evidence in a report that he gave to Nifong for use at a hearing in the case, even though they had discussed the evidence and it might have helped exonerate the defendants….‘It was poor judgment on my part,’ said Meehan. ‘But there was no specific reason or agenda.’” He also testified, according to Newsday, that “he found no DNA from any of the men charged in the case on the exotic dancer.”
According to the June 16 edition of The New York Times, the North Carolina State Bar which brought the complaint heard by the disciplinary panel charged Nifong with “systemic abuse of prosecutorial discretion” for “withholding evidence and making improper pretrial statements.” The most egregious pre-trial statement by Nifong was, “I am not going to let Durham’s view in the eyes of the world be a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl from Durham.” Nifong’s statements appear intended to inflame the black community, in particular seeking their support in the political campaign in which he was running for reelection.
The Disciplinary Panel found, according to The Times, that Nifong “had made inflammatory remarks, withheld DNA evidence and misled a judge in the case…” and disbarred him.
The parents of these young men are apparently considering their next steps. Personally, I hope they sue everyone involved in the DA’s office and not only Nifong for the gross negligence and possible criminal conduct committed by that office in violating the rules, laws and ethics to which they are subject. Duke University recently settled with the young men.
Fortunately, the three young men came from families with sufficient wealth to hire able and diligent defense counsel—reportedly, each spent a million dollars apiece on legal costs. Had the three young men, black or white, not had the funds needed to hire superb lawyers and pay for the required investigation, in all probability, the students would not have been exonerated.
I believe that while great credit goes to the young men, their parents and their attorneys for the spectacular outcomes—exoneration for them and disbarment for Nifong—an even greater role was played by the national media for continuing to report on the matter.
The North Carolina State Bar disciplinary hearings that heard the case were open to the public and broadcast on television and radio. Every state in the Union, including New York, should change their rules where necessary to open the doors of disciplinary panels sitting in judgment of attorneys, doctors and other professionals. Nifong has lost his license to practice law and will now be liable for possible criminal proceedings and civil lawsuits, as he should be. The 88 Duke professors who signed a statement during the earlier proceedings condemning the lacrosse team students without allowing the students the opportunity to present their case should admit error and apologize to the students. Their statement said, “This is a social disaster. No one is really talking about how to keep the young woman herself central to this conversation. Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism.”
Every law school in the nation should show the disciplinary hearings to teach how prosecutorial injustice can destroy lives and how lawyers devoted to pursuing justice can perform near miracles, if given the resources to fight for their clients.