Even for a case known for breaking news on the least expected occasions, yesterday was unusually hectic.
The day began with Reade Seligmann’s appearance on the Today show. Seligmann confirmed that the three players’ attorneys would file a sanctions motion against Mike Nifong. He went out of his way to praise the State Bar and the North Carolina Disciplinary Hearing Commission, whose actions “provided all of our family with a lot of closure.” Seligmann noted that while the affair was “probably something you’ll never get over . . . the state bar really did an incredible job. They showed courage by intervening in our case, and they did do the right thing by disbarring Mr. Nifong.”
A few hours later, Nifong arrived at his Durham office, ready to begin the workweek as if nothing at all had happened at the State Bar. In his teary-eyed testimony last Friday, he strongly implied that he would resign immediately as district attorney. Instead, in a resignation letter that was publicly released just after noon, Nifong said that he planned to stay on for four more weeks, collecting more than $10,000 in salary and fortifying his pension.
The disgraced DA informed Governor Mike Easley, “Should the person you appoint to succeed me wish to speak with me during the remainder of my term of service about facilitating transition to a new administration, I would be more than happy to attempt to accommodate his or her needs.”
Senior resident judge Orlando Hudson, apparently oblivious that Nifong could use his remaining time in office to obstruct a possible criminal inquiry, declared that he would not act on Beth Brewer’s motion that Nifong be suspended or removed.
Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown, on the other hand, was appropriately outraged: “What is he trying to prove? This is like rubbing salt into the community’s wound. He has resigned and been disbarred. Does he not get it?”
In the media world, CNN and Washington Post critic Howie Kurtz ran a 12.00pm-1.00pm on-line chat, fielding several questions about the lacrosse case. Kurtz, appropriately, criticized the media’s spring 2006 rush to judgment, singling out Nancy Grace and Newsweek’s decision to place Seligmann’s and Collin Finnerty’s mugshots on the cover, under the guilt-presuming headline of “Sex, Lies, and Duke.”
Then, however, he was asked a seeming softball: “The New York Times coverage of the Nifong hearing has been remarkably biased towards Nifong, in both choices of excerpts to use and in the slant of the articles. Do you know why this is the case?
Kurtz’s response? “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
He cited the only reasonably fair story on the hearing penned by Duff Wilson, in the Saturday paper. Kurtz apparently missed everything else Wilson wrote about the hearing, or the remarkable event of Brad Bannon publicly calling out the Times reporter from the witness stand.
At a 2.30pm press conference, Easley expressed outrage at Nifong’s decision to hang on for an additional 28 days. The normally taciturn governor told reporters that Nifong “should have left and not gone back,” except to clean out his office. “I don’t think he ought to be in the district attorney’s office, having been disbarred,” Easley continued. “As a prosecutor . . . constitutionally, you’re given an awful lot of power. You can destroy a reputation within moments.” Yet under North Carolina’s arcane procedures, neither the governor nor any other statewide official has the power to remove a sitting DA.
At 3.00pm, Duke—an institution known for its hard-ball tactics in dealing with lawsuits—announced a settlement with the three falsely accused players and their families. Per customary university policy, no terms were released, and both sides issued gracious statements about the dangers of false prosecution. That said, the follow-up on the previous settlements (with the Dowds and with former coach Mike Pressler) was difficult to miss.
Shortly thereafter, Paul Haagen, outgoing chair of the Academic Council, e-mailed other Council members to explain the settlement. The critical sentence: “As a result of the settlement, all faculty have been released from any claims of liability related to the lacrosse matter up through the date of the settlement (June 18, 2007).” While the Duke administration has been unwilling to hold a segment of its faculty to minimal standards of the profession, it seems that it was willing to use University funds to protect those same faculty members from legal action. From a tactical standpoint, the decision was a wise one by the Brodhead/Steel team—any lawsuit by the three families would have been a public relations nightmare for Duke.
Meanwhile, criticism of Nifong’s recalcitrance mounted. City Councilman Thomas Stith termed it “a disservice to the community for him to continue to hold onto office. I don't understand why he’d want to continue to drag this out for another 30 days. It is again making us all suffer for his decisions.” City Councilman Mike Woodard and Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow expressed similar sentiments.
Then, just after 8.00pm, the N&O reported that Judge Orlando Hudson, chief resident Superior Court judge in Durham County, had reversed his earlier position and would suspend Mike Nifong from office today. Hudson also announced that he would appoint a special prosecutor to consider a criminal case against Nifong, although his authority for doing so is unclear.
Hudson told WRAL, “There is some concern that a resignation effective at a later date could cause complications as far as legal proceedings go.” In comments to the Herald-Sun, Hudson added, “All you need to suspend him is probable cause. You have much more than probable cause with a clear and cogent finding by the State Bar.” He didn’t say why he had not reached that conclusion immediately.
Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Walter Jones renewed his call for a Justice Department inquiry, which increasingly seems the only way to get to the root of Durham’s problems. He promised to have another letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales out this week.
So Nifong is out. Presumably Linwood Wilson will follow. Can a criminal inquiry be far behind?