Duke lacrosse D.A. asks state to step in

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Facing ethics charges that could lead to his disbarment, the embattled district attorney in the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case asked the state attorney general Friday to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the case.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said District Attorney Mike Nifong made the request in a letter.

Nifong’s attorney insisted the veteran prosecutor was not running from a weak case and said Nifong was disappointed he would not be able to take the matter to trial.

“He feels, as a result of the accusations against him, that he would be a distraction, and he wants to make sure the accuser receives a fair trial,” attorney David Freedman told The Associated Press. “He still believes in the case. He just believes his continued presence would hurt her.”

Nifong met with the accuser this week to tell her of his decision, Freedman said.

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office declined to comment on whether it would take the case. Officials planned to speak with reporters today.

Last month, the North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with violating four rules of professional conduct for making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. The ethics charges carry penalties ranging from admonishment to removal from the bar.

It was not immediately clear what impact Nifong’s decision would have on the troubled prosecution of Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans.

If the attorney general accepts the case, “then they would transfer the files over, and they would probably have a lot of interviews to do,” said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. “It would probably stop things for a while, I imagine.”

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.

Once the ethics charges were filed, Nifong “had a conflict of interest with respect with the case,” said Ron Sullivan, a criminal law professor at Yale University. “It’s probably safe to say that Nifong felt that he couldn’t be completely objective.”

Legal experts and observers have railed against Nifong in recent weeks, calling his case pitfully weak and casting doubt on his chance of winning. Even longtime colleagues have questioned his judgment and integrity.

“I think we’re all delighted that we’re going to have objective and competent prosecutors reviewing this case,” said James P. Cooney III, an attorney for Seligmann. “We look forward to cooperating with those prosecutors fully and completely in bringing this prosecution to an end.”

Wade Smith, an attorney for Finnerty, was also pleased and pledged to meet with any new prosecutors. “We will assist them in every way we can,” he said.

From the case’s earliest days, Nifong has led the investigation into allegations that a 28-year-old student at North Carolina Central University was gang-raped and beaten at a March 13 party thrown by Duke’s highly ranked lacrosse team. The accuser had been hired as a stripper for the party.

Experts have said it appears Nifong’s case is based only on the testimony of the accuser, who has told wildly different versions of the alleged assault. Her shifting account of that night led him to drop rape charges on Dec. 22.

The three players remain charged with sexual offense and kidnapping.

“I think justice is better served with a fresh set of eyes on this case,” Sullivan said. “This way, the personality of the prosecuting attorney won’t be a factor in the investigation.”

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