Thursday, June 28, 2007


It's not so much that I feel sympathy for Mike Nifong, it's that I feel a lot of distaste for some of the people who are crowing at his downfall: For former Duke lacrosse coach, now "professional victim" Mike Pressler. For our governor Mike Easley, who piled on to Nifong after he saw which way the wind was blowing. For KC Johnson and other bloggers who have made a cottage industry out of blog-flogging Duke and Nifong and Crystal Mangum. (Johnson proudly struck a blow for justice by ferreting out and publishing Mangum's name early on, when the mainstream media was refraining from that.) For the Duke student newspaper, which on the day Nifong was disbarred, ran the banner headline A GREAT DAY FOR NORTH CAROLINA. (Quoting the defense lawyer for one of the lacrosse players.)

Look, getting rid of an outrageously inept prosecutor wasn't a great day, it was a necessary day for North Carolina. It was like a tumor being excised, the day when healing hopefully will begin. Maybe it was a great day for high-priced defense lawyers, maybe it was a great day for carpetbagging college students, but for many of us it was somewhat somber. I don't know if it's generally understood how bad the Duke lacrosse case was for virtually everybody touched by it, in addition to the wrongly accused players. It was bad all the way around for Duke (the president, the faculty, the students). Duke students now hate President Dick Brodhead, they truly hate him, he's down there with Osama Bin Laden and venereal disease, which I think is an unfortunate and corrosive situation. Given the givens, I'm not certain any other university president would have handled it much differently. It was bad all the way around for Durham (the cops, the courts, the mayor, the city's national image). I guess it was good for the defense lawyers, and it was good for the media.

Another thing to say about the lacrosse case is how topsy-turvy it was, how uniquely bizarre. Not that prosecutorial misconduct is so rare. What's rare is that a DA would stick his neck out so far in pursuit of well-heeled white defendants on behalf of a poor black accuser. In the first days when the dogs were baying for the lacrosse team, among the friends I was talking to locally, it was clear how far Nifong was sticking his neck out (I remember one conversation with a friend, about how much differently Raleigh DA Colon Willoughby, a model of probity, would have played it), but it was hard to imagine Nifong was bluffing, that he wasn't holding the cards. I made an error, one shared by many Duke faculty and employees: I generalized about the lacrosse case. I thought of it as a symptom of broader social problems at Duke: overuse of alcohol, abusive sexual politics, jock worship taken to extremes. Like the Group of 88 faculty members, I mouthed the prophylactic phrase "innocent until proven guilty," but I was much too willing to conclude the players were guilty, not nearly skeptical enough. One of the lessons there is, do not generalize from this bizarre case. This advice is for you, my conservative counterparts, as well as for my liberal allies. Do not draw broad conclusions about the raw deal white guys get in the courts, or the way hetero guys are constantly harassed by false rape charges.

This entire mess was all Mike Nifong's fault. It feels funny to say that; I'm used to looking for sociological undercurrents to explain events. But I put this all at Nifong's feet. It makes me curious about him, hungry to understand him, even (contra the opening sentence of this post) a little sympathetic to him. One thing I think explains a good bit (I learned this from the Raleigh N&O’s excellent Rush to Judgment series about the lacrosse case) is the fact that Nifong knew the accuser's family. An uncle of the accuser had been murdered several years ago, Nifong tried the case and got a conviction, and there was a bond between the prosecutor and the family.

Nifong put his head down, plowed ahead, didn't pause to entertain doubts Sure, there was a re-election campaign and he figured the media attention would help him, but a moment of career calculation veered off into months of fatal single-mindedness. A halfway competent Machiavellian would have switched course much earlier. As the N&O's Steve Ford related in an editorial last Sunday, the state bar judge concluded that Nifong's actions were the product of "self-deception arising out of self-interest," and that might be as good an explanation as we can hope for.

More Steve Ford:

[Nifong] had entered the territory where character was put to the acid test. To have backed down would have been humiliating, or worse, could have amounted to an admission of misconduct. It would have meant defeat at the hands of defense attorneys who had engaged him in a vicious legal knife fight. His stubbornness, combativeness and pride all must have kicked in -- all-too-human flaws.

So Nifong slid down the slope of deceit in the sharing of DNA evidence -- perhaps, in his mind, not all the way to the bottom, but far enough that the defense was able to cry "cheater" and make it stick. He couldn't summon straight answers when asked in court to give assurances that all the evidence helpful to the defense had been disclosed.

Ethical guidelines exist to protect us against ourselves. Nifong thought he was justified in bending the rules because of the greater end of justice, a favorite theme of television drama. (Think Andy Sipowicz, think Jack Bauer.) Look where he ended up.

Steve Ford concludes his column by giving Mike Nifong a little credit: "With the blade poised to drop on his legal career, Nifong at least had the grace to acknowledge that he was getting what he deserved." Actually, to some observers (such as my wife) this was the final insult, for Nifong to cop a plea after all the trouble and expense he put the system through. If it was calculation, it was certainly inept, wrong-headed calculation. I wonder if maybe Nifong never understood the players' ordeal, really never got it, until he saw Reade Seligmann's tearful testimony, given right in front of Nifong's face. It was only at that moment that the blinders came off.

A lot of books are being published to capitalize on the Duke lacrosse controversy, by KC Johnson and Mike Pressler and the lacrosse players' families and others. I may be all alone in this, but the only Duke lacrosse book that would interest me would be a profile of Mike Nifong, extraordinary villain, extraordinary fool.

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