This seems in stark contrast to the humbled former Durham District Attorney who admitted his mistakes in June, when the bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission ended his career for intentionally lying and cheating during his prosecution of rape and kidnapping charges against three Duke Lacrosse players.
The thing that took Nifong over the edge was a change in the panel’s official written order. The initial order found Nifong guilty of 10 counts. Duke Law professor Robert Mosteller, in reviewing the document for two law review articles he’s writing on the case, sent an e-mail message to the State Bar to bring to their attention a missing count.
Lane Williamson, head of the panel, amended the order to include the 11th count-that Nifong ordered a DNA lab director to report only matches between rape kit evidence and specific people.
Nifong attacked the change “Mr. Williamson’s e-mail assertion that the addition of a new conclusion of law based on the request of a Duke University law professor is merely a ‘clerical correction’ is preposterous beyond belief, and is further evidence of the fundamental unfairness with which this entire procedure has been conducted,” he wrote in his letter to the bar.
This one isn’t over yet. Nifong is the first North Carolina prosecutor to be disbarred for cheating. He’s not the first to use his enormous power to manipulate the legal process. He is the first to get his hand caught in the cookie jar for reasons that leave many aching over the outcome. In June, Nifong claimed the process was just. That may have been no more than nice play for damage control.
After the hearing in June, lawyers and family members made mention of a statement Nifong made in his testimony in which he said he still contends something happened that night. That claim is what landed Nifong in trouble. It’s what led him to move forward with indictments against Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann. Nifong has been stripped of his right to practices law and serve as DA because he believes an exotic dancer
He stood in defiance before the world, assuring that those rich boys at Duke would not get away with raping a Black woman who was attempting to make a living. The nerve of him. How dare he take sides with a black woman who lacks the class, financial backing and connections of those young men.
In the end, Nifong still believes something happened. Something that makes someone guilty of crime. He’s not sure who did it. He lacks the evidence to move forward, but he still believes the exotic dancer. He stood on the wrong side of the tracks. He listened to her claims, and when her story changed, over and over again, he still believed she was the victim of something hideous.
He spoke with passion because he believed her. He was willing to go up against a star studded defense team because he believed she was telling the truth. And yes, he lost his job and his license because he continues to believe the testimony of a black exotic dancer over that of rich white boys who attended school and played lacrosse at Duke University.
That is a violation of the rules of social order that have been with us since Columbus tricked us into believing he discovered America. In this country, white race combined with male gender and economic standing is the substance of assumed privilege. Never, again I say never, should a person believe the witness of a poor, black woman over against a rich, white man.
Nifong understood the edgy ground he stood. He knew, given his own standing as a white male with privilege, that believing the exotic dancer placed his job at risk. He understood that he was coming against a boundless collective voice. He had to know that, in time, all that power would wear him down, and that, when it happened, he would be treated as a traitor for believing that woman.
The aftermath of this story has many believing mistakes were made. This, they will claim, never should have been reduced to a case involving race, class and gender. They will have you believing this is no more than an example of what happens when the laws that govern prosecutorial conduct are violated. Some contend that this is nothing more than an example of the dangers that come with power, and how a high publicized case can be used to get a person elected to office.
Those same people are quick to shift the focus away from what Nifong and people who have lived in Durham for a while were afraid of-that race and class would rule the way the case was handled. Durham has seen its share of hostility connected to high profile cases. The demographics of the city make it easier for those on opposite poles to duke it out in public space. Fighting is what Durham does best. That’s not a bad thing, in fact the opposite if true. Durham is not one of those places where black people are reduced to hiding in the shadows out of fear of retaliation.
Nifong did what people in Durham have come to expect from those who pledge to protect the rights of all citizens. He stood before the world and stated what people needed to hear- that he would not be swayed by the power players. He would do something that is rare among elected officials. He was willing to believe the word of a black woman against that of white, privileged males at Duke.
That position caused him to speak too soon. He made statements that shouldn’t have been made by a person in his position. He is, we are told, appointed to be impartial until all the evidence has been placed on the table. By all accounts, Nifong took a stance against the lacrosse players before he had a chance to evaluate all the findings. Despite the public uproar that followed, this isn’t unusual. In fact, I’m willing to bet, this is more of the norm. The deviation is related more to the status of the key players than the handling of the case.
Nifong was amazingly complicit for speaking his position. The molding of cases has more to do with assumptions involving the reputations of those involved. This case proves that notion. In his estimation those boys were guilty of something. He made a calculated decision. In this matter he was willing to believe her versus taking the popular stance in support of the rich guys.
Nifong manipulated the evidence. He held information from the defense team. He violated normal protocol by conducting a line up that only included members of the lacrosse team. Nifong broke the law and misused his power as district attorney. That will not be disputed. At issue is the reason behind these violations. Is it because he wanted to be re-elected, or could it be he believed her and, once the truth unfolded, he was so caught up in what he believed that he couldn’t, in his mind, turn back?
What followed were a series of decisions intended to enhance the case against the lacrosse players. In moving forward it was imperative that the character of the dancer not be tarnished more than it had. This was a complicated task given the attack coming from the defense team and the role of the press. Photos were released and within days the name of the accuser was posted on blogs across the nation. With those photos were claims that dug at the validity of the accusation.
She’s a liar. She’s a thief. She’s a prostitute. She cheated on her first husband, has a history of mental illness, was kicked out of the military, claimed she was raped before, and was so drunk that night that she wasn’t able to stay on her feet to dance.
Despite the ruining of her standing, Nifong continued to believe her story. He fought to protect her declining valor. He decided not to provide the defense team with evidence related to the other men she had slept with. Four of them. Count them-four had sperm deposited within in on her body. That’s a lot for any woman to overcome. It wasn’t just the sperm of her boyfriend. There were three others, and none belonged to the rich boys who played lacrosse at Duke.
After receiving the DNA lab report he didn’t waver. For some reason, reasons that most can’t understand, he refused to drop the case. He pressed forward despite shaky evidence. He dismissed the protective eye of the national press and a well paid defense team. He didn’t care that the line up violated normal procedure, and that many within the community wanted his head on a silver platter.
He made a series of mistakes that led to those teary days in June before the bar panel. Most are left believing this is nothing more than a case of a man consumed with power. He wanted to win that election. He loved the icon status that came with the case. He thrived on keeping things going in an attempt to keep the big trucks with satellite access parked out front of the court house. Sadly, most miss the point of the demise of Mike Nifong. This is not a bad dude who lost his mind to get some attention. He made one glaring mistake-he believed the testimony of a poor, black, female that made her living taking off her clothes. He failed to play by the rules, and, in the end, he paid the price for protecting her right to have a day in court.
Nifong fulfilled his promise to those who feared money and power would win this battle. He promised to stand for the victim. His decision was framed within a context of extreme racial tension. He made a promise to the poor and powerless. He believed her story.
He wasn’t alone. Others believed her as well. They waited for the opportunity to hear the story of an exotic dancer. They wanted to see her face, to tell her they supported her. To remind her that she was not alone. Many of them are survivors of rape. For some strange reason, one that is hard to explain, they believe something strange happened in that house. There’s no evidence to prove it. There will be no day in court to hear her pain, to look her in the eyes and ponder what led Mike Nifong to take a chance on a case with no proof, a victim with a dubious history, and too many loopholes to plug in.
Mike Nifong believed the story. Others jumped to the same conclusions. The only difference is they can go to work today. Nifong has no job or license to practice. That’s what happens when you believe the story of a poor, black woman over against rich, white men.
Mike Nifong mailed in his license. In the end, he said what many have felt-this process was not a fair one. Money and power ruled the day. I hope this doesn’t teach those in the law profession the wrong lesson.