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No Challenger For Duke Lacrosse DA

Durham County Commissioner Lewis Cheek on Thursday turned down the chance to challenge Duke lacrosse prosecutor Mike Nifong in the November election, saying he couldn't abandon his young law firm.

But Cheek's name will still appear on the ballot for Durham County District Attorney — and he declined to support Nifong, the only other candidate seeking the job.

"I'm not going to personally support anybody," said Cheek, who acknowledged he would vote for himself. "I have no intentions of getting involved with anyone or for anyone."

Cheek, 55, has said he was approached about running for the job by people dissatisfied with how Nifong has handled the investigation that led to rape charges against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Nifong, appointed district attorney last year after nearly three decades as an assistant, initially talked openly about his investigation and granted dozens of interviews about the case. He later changed course, and by early April had nearly stopped answering questions.

Cheek didn't criticize Nifong on Thursday but said he believed Nifong should have appointed a special prosecutor to handle the case.

"This was never anything personal at any point," Cheek said. "It had to do with philosophies of how things get handled. It wasn't so much Mike Nifong as it was the philosophy that was reflected."

Cheek, a Democratic trial lawyer in private practice, was a member of the Durham City Council for two terms and was mayor pro-tem for one term. He was elected to the county board of commissioners in 2004.

During his announcement Thursday, Cheek said he didn't feel comfortable leaving his 3-year-old law firm to serve as district attorney. Cheek said he wound not take the job if he is elected, which would force Gov. Mike Easley to appoint a district attorney.

"The people will be able to directly state whether they are satisfied with the status quo," Cheek said. "I will not run a campaign and I will not serve as district attorney."

Cheek had weighed his decision for several months, starting a signature drive to win a spot on the ballot after Nifong defeated two Democratic challengers in the May primary and appeared on his way to winning office with no opposition in the general election.

Ultimately, he finished with well over the 6,303 signatures required by June 30. Another possible candidate, Republican lawyer Steve Monks, fell short in his attempt to make the ballot.

Durham County elections director Mike Ashe said he hadn't seen such a DA race during his six years in Durham.

"I don't think the race for district attorney has gotten this much attention," he said.

Nifong, 55, became a focal point of the Duke lacrosse investigation shortly after a 27-year-old black student at North Carolina Central University told police she was raped and beaten by three white men at a March 13 party thrown by Duke's lacrosse team.

The woman had been hired to perform at the party as an exotic dancer.

A grand jury has indicted three Duke lacrosse players with rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. Attorneys for all three have strongly proclaimed their clients' innocence. A trial isn't expected before spring 2007.

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