Saturday, June 16, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. — A tearful Mike Nifong said yesterday he will resign as district attorney after admitting he made improper statements about three Duke University lacrosse players who were last year charged with raping a stripper.

“My community has suffered enough,” Mr. Nifong said from the witness stand at his ethics trial on charges that he violated rules of professional conduct in his handling of the case.

The players were later declared innocent by state prosecutors.

The North Carolina State Bar said Mr. Nifong withheld DNA test results from the players’ defense attorneys, lied to the court and bar investigators and made misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes, who were cleared of charges they raped a stripper at a team party in March 2006.

Mr. Nifong said he did not make all the mistakes listed by the bar, “but they are my mistakes.”

“It has become increasingly apparent, during the course of this week, in some ways that it might not have been before, that my presence as the district attorney in Durham is not furthering the cause of justice,” Mr. Nifong said.

Mr. Nifong’s soft-spoken statements were barely audible in the courtroom, where observers leaned forward in their chairs as they struggled to hear Mr. Nifong through his tears.

The families of since-cleared players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans watched with little emotion, and Mr. Evans’ attorney rejected Mr. Nifong’s attempt to take responsibility.

“It was an obvious cynical ploy to save his law license, and his apology to these people is far too little and comes far too late,” defense lawyer Joseph Cheshire said.

Mr. Nifong started in the Durham County prosecutor’s office nearly three decades ago as a volunteer attorney fresh out of law school. If convicted by the disciplinary committee, he could lose his license to practice law in the state.

The inflammatory statements cited by the bar included Mr. Nifong calling the players a “bunch of hooligans” and confidently proclaiming he wouldn’t allow Durham to become known for “a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl.”

On the stand yesterday, Mr. Nifong said: “The comment about race was not a comment that should have been made.”

He also testified about the DNA tests, saying that when he turned over the report to the defense, he “believed at the time that I had given them everything.” He said he didn’t realize until months later that additional DNA information was missing.

“My first reaction was a variation of ‘oh crap,’ ” Mr. Nifong said. ” ‘I didn’t give them this?’ ”

One of the accused players testified earlier yesterday that he and his teammates had been confident that the DNA testing would quickly clear them.

The results failed to show any physical contact between the accuser and the members of the lacrosse team, but Mr. Nifong still pressed ahead with the case and obtained indictments against the three athletes.

“We went from being viewed as athletes to being viewed as rapists,” Mr. Seligmann testified yesterday.

Mr. Seligmann broke into tears as he described how his attorney got a call from Mr. Nifong notifying him of the indictment last year. He said the attorney glanced his way and said, ” ‘She picked you.’ ”

“My dad just fell to the floor, and I just sat on the ground,” Mr. Seligmann said. “And I said, ‘My life is over.’ … The first thing I thought about was, ‘How am I going to tell my mom.’ ”

His attorneys pulled together ATM receipts, cell-phone records, time-stamped photos and the testimony of the cabdriver who took Mr. Seligmann home the night of the off-campus party where the woman, hired to perform as a stripper, said she had been attacked.

“I don’t know much about the law,” Mr. Seligmann said, “but you hear the word alibi, and you think that’s one of the first things a prosecutor would want to have. You don’t charge an innocent person. I could never understand it.”

The three-member panel hearing the case is expected to deliver a verdict not long after the trial concludes, perhaps as early as today.

{bullet} Associated Press writers Steve Hartsoe and Samuel Spies in Raleigh, and Joedy McCreary in Durham, contributed to this article.

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