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Politics Playing Role In Duke Case?

The controversy over the alleged rape of an exotic dancer by Duke University lacrosse players is taking on a new dimension, as opponents of the district attorney charge he's trying to parlay the case to his political advantage as he runs for re-election.

CBS News correspondent Trish Regan reports that D.A. Mike Nifong of Durham County, N.C., a Democrat, faces a challenge in a primary next month whose winner is virtually certain to go on to victory in the general election since no Republican is running for the seat.

The dancer, who is black, charges that three white members of the lacrosse team assaulted her at an off-campus party a month ago. Defense attorneys say there have been no matches in tests done on DNA samples taken from almost all of the team's players. No one has been charged in the case, but Nifong insists it's not over.

The case has heightened racial tensions in the Durham area, and drawn attention to what many in the community view as the elitist aura surrounding the school.

In addition, high-powered attorney Bill Bennett, who represented Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case, has been hired to try to polish the public image of the players, Regan says.

At a democratic forum, Nifong's foes in the primary fired away.

"Perhaps he thought that he had landed a case that would save his prosecutorial career," asserted Freda Black.

"It casts a long shadow over the integrity of your administration of this case," Keith Bishop said.

But Nifong insisted his intentions are honorable, saying: "I am not going to allow Durham's view in the mind of the world be a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl in Durham."

Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University, where the alleged victim is a student, says Nifong made this case too public, too soon.

"When it's tried," Joyner told Regan, "there'll be very few people who will have not heard about the case, making an impartial jury selection almost impossible."

And, Regan points out, with so many people in this community convinced of the Duke players' guilt, despite the DNA tests, some believe Nifong has no choice but to move forward.

Bill Thomas, a lawyer for one of the players, says: "There seems to be a rush to judgment in this case. There seems to be a rush to indictment in this case."

Thomas says he thinks Nifong will seek an indictment as early as Monday and will probably get it.

This, despite pictures he has that he says will prove his client's innocence: "There are (time-stamped) photos of her at the backdoor, after they asked her to leave and locked the door, where she is smiling and grinning. And this would have been after this alleged vicious sexual assault took place."

As for Bennett being hired, Regan told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith Thursday: "The reality is that many people in this community have basically convicted these kids in their minds. So, public opinion is very much against these kids. So, there's a feeling among the players' families, among their attorneys, that they really need to work on the spin, how this is being perceived by the public, because, let's not forget, no charges have been filed yet."

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