State Takes Over Duke Lacrosse Case

duke press conf CBS

The state attorney general's office agreed Saturday to take over the sexual assault case against three Duke University lacrosse players at the request of the embattled district attorney.

Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, hamstrung by a flip-flopping witness and dogged by allegations that he made inflammatory statements to the media, asked Attorney General Roy Cooper's office Friday to appoint a special prosecutor.

"I wish I could tell you this case would be resolved quickly," Cooper said at a news conference Saturday. "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."

Cooper pledged that his office would not comment on details of the case as officials review the investigation and the charges of sexual assault and kidnapping against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans.

Last month, Nifong dropped rape charges against the men after the accuser changed a key detail of her description of the alleged attack.

Nifong has led the investigation into allegations a 28-year-old student at North Carolina Central University — hired to perform as a stripper — was gang-raped and beaten at a March 13 party thrown by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team.

Nifong's comments to reporters in the early days of the case, including calling the lacrosse team "a bunch of hooligans," led the North Carolina State Bar to charge him last month with several ethics violations.

He faces penalties ranging from admonishment to removal from the bar; a hearing in that case is scheduled for May 11.

"Michael Nifong recognizes the reality of the situation he's got his own problems to worry about," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.

Among those problems are the families of the accused, who minced no words to 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl in an exclusive interview to be seen Sunday night.

"Mr. Nifong, you've picked on the wrong families of the Duke lacrosse team. You will pay for the rest of your life," said Rae Evans, the mother of David Evans

Nifong's attorney said Friday the conflict of interest those charges created led the veteran prosecutor to ask the state to take over.

Attorney David Freedman said Nifong is disappointed that he has to get out of the case and that his decision to seek a special prosecutor has "nothing to do with how he feels about the merit of the case."

Under North Carolina law, only a district attorney can formally request a special prosecutor. The request can be made when there are potential conflicts of interest, when a case is particularly complex or when there are other unusual circumstances.

Cooper said Jim Coman, a former director of the State Bureau of Investigation and head of the attorney general's Special Prosecution Section; and Mary D. Winstead, a prosecutor in that division, would now oversee the case.

"Agreeing to accept the prosecution of these cases doesn't guarantee a trial, nor does it guarantee a dismissal," Cooper said.

He said his office would take possession of the case files and documents next week, but declined to comment on how quickly their review would progress.

Some observers are asking why Nifong waited until Friday to ask to be pulled from the case.

"He's doing it now because he's in trouble," Cohen said. He has finally realized that he has become the story here, which is not where a prosecutor wants to be."
  • Joel Roberts

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