Tuesday, June 19, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — A judge said last night that he would order Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong to leave his duties immediately after he was disbarred for his misconduct in the Duke University rape case.

The decision was announced just hours after the university reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the three former lacrosse players falsely accused of rape.

The prosecutor had announced earlier in the day that he would leave July 13, but that wasn’t soon enough for Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who decided late yesterday to suspend Mr. Nifong from office. As part of the suspension, Judge Hudson said, he would order the sheriff today to prevent Mr. Nifong from carrying out any duties of Durham County district attorney.

“I have thought about the situation, and this is way I wish to proceed,” said Judge Hudson, who initially agreed to allow Mr. Nifong to work until next month.

Duke had suspended Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans after Mr. Nifong charged them last year with raping a stripper at an off-campus party. The university also canceled the team’s season and forced their coach to resign.

“We welcomed their exoneration and deeply regret the difficult year they and their families have had to endure,” the school said yesterday in a statement. “These young men and their families have been the subject of intense scrutiny that has taken a heavy toll.”

The accusations were debunked in April by state prosecutors, who said the players were the victims of a “tragic rush to accuse” by Mr. Nifong. The players’ families racked up millions of dollars of legal bills in their defense, and appear likely to file a lawsuit against Mr. Nifong.

The players said in a joint statement that they hoped the agreement would “begin to bring the Duke family back together again.”

“The events of the last year tore the Duke community apart, and forcibly separated us from the university we love,” they said. “We were the victims of a rogue prosecutor concerned only with winning an election, and others determined to railroad three Duke lacrosse players and to diminish the reputation of Duke University.”

A disciplinary committee of the North Carolina State Bar concluded Saturday that Mr. Nifong had broken more than two dozen rules of professional conduct in his handling of the case, including lying to the court, making inflammatory statements about the three indicted lacrosse players and their teammates, and withholding critical DNA evidence from defense attorneys. After some administrative steps, Mr. Nifong will have 30 days to turn in his law license.

Dick Ellis, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said Mr. Nifong will still be eligible for his full retirement benefits — a pension and health care — that he accrued while working as a state employee for nearly 30 years. But because he served less than five years as district attorney, he is not vested in a more lucrative retirement system for judges, prosecutors and the director of the courts office.

There was no word on whom Gov. Michael F. Easley will choose to replace Mr. Nifong, who was appointed in 2005.

“You are given a lot of power and you can destroy a reputation in moments with just a few words,” Mr. Easley, a former prosecutor and a Democrat, said yesterday. “This was much more than a mistake.”

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