- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The state attorney general’s office agreed yesterday 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 Michael Nifong, hamstrung by a flip-flopping accuser and dogged by accusations that he made inflammatory statements to the press, 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,” Mr. Cooper said at a press conference yesterday. “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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. Nifong dropped rape charges against the men after the accuser changed a key detail of her description of the purported attack.

Mr. Nifong has led the investigation into accusations that 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.

The prosecutor’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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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,” he said.

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

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