Nifong says he'll resign, admits improper statements

Updated: June 15, 2007, 10:28 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Breaking down in tears at his ethics trial, Mike Nifong abruptly quit as district attorney Friday after admitting he got "carried away" with statements during his discredited rape prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players.

Catching even his attorneys by surprise, Nifong said he would resign and regretted making improper statements about the players.

Mike Nifong
AP Photo/Gerry Broome"I think clearly some of the statements I made were improper," Nifong admitted Friday.

"My community has suffered enough," Nifong said at his trial on allegations that he violated rules of professional conduct.

State prosecutors who took over the case have declared the players innocent.

The North Carolina State Bar alleges Nifong withheld DNA test results from the players' defense attorneys, lied to the court and bar investigators and made misleading and inflammatory comments about the three athletes who'd been charged with raping an exotic dancer at a team party in March 2006.

Nifong said he wanted to own up to his mistakes, but that he did not make all the mistakes alleged by the bar.

"I will go to my grave being associated with this case. And that's OK," Nifong said. "Whatever mistakes I made in this case were my mistakes. But they're not all the ones that the bar says I made, but they are my mistakes."

Nifong's soft-spoken statements were barely audible in the courtroom, where observers leaned forward in their chairs as they struggled to hear him through his tears.

The families of players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans watched with little emotion, and Evans' attorney rejected Nifong's attempt to take responsibility.

"It was an obvious cynical ploy to save his law license, and his apology to these people is far too little and comes far too late," Evans lawyer Joseph Cheshire said.

Nifong started in the Durham County prosecutor's office nearly three decades ago as a volunteer attorney fresh out of law school. If convicted by the disciplinary committee, he could lose his license to practice law in the state.

"When Mr. Nifong accepted his appointment as Durham's leading law enforcement officer, he committed to ensure the fairness and integrity of the legal system that we rely on to resolve conflicts in our society," Duke president Richard Brodhead told the Raleigh News and Observer.

"His handling of the Duke lacrosse case was deeply unfair to the young men involved and damaged the criminal justice system itself. Mr. Nifong brought great harm to these Duke students and their families, to the Durham community, and to Duke University and all who care about it.

"Even though his decision to resign comes under threat of sanctions by the North Carolina State Bar, I welcome it. It sets the stage for a healing process to which we all are committed."

My dad just fell to the floor, and I just sat on the ground. And I said, 'My life is over.'

Reade Seligmann, on learning he had been indicted.

Nifong acknowledged he was likely to be punished by a disciplinary committee for maybe getting "carried away a little bit" when talking about the case. He said he regretted some of his statements, including a confident proclamation that he wouldn't allow Durham to become known for "a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl."

The three players who were charged are white.

He also testified about the DNA tests, saying that when he turned over the report to the defense, he "believed at the time that I had given them everything." He said he didn't realize until months later that additional DNA information was missing.

"My first reaction was a variation of 'Oh crap. I didn't give them this?' " Nifong said.

The DNA tests found genetic material from several males in the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any lacrosse player. Aware of those results, Nifong pressed ahead with the case and won indictments against Seligmann, Evans and Finnerty.

"We went from being viewed as athletes to being viewed as rapists," Seligmann testified earlier Friday.

State prosecutors would later conclude the three players innocent victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse."

Even after saying he would resign, Nifong was incapable of agreeing that no crime was committed. Asked late Friday if he still believed the accuser was attacked, Nifong paused for several seconds before answering while he could not say it was a sexual assault, "something happened to make everybody leave that scene very quickly."

Seligmann testified that he and his teammates had been confident that the DNA testing would quickly clear them.

Seligmann broke into tears as he described how his attorney got a call from Nifong notifying him of the indictment last year. He said the attorney glanced his way and said, "She picked you."

"My dad just fell to the floor, and I just sat on the ground," Seligmann said. "And I said, 'My life is over.' ... The first thing I thought about was, 'How am I going to tell my mom?"'

His attorneys pulled together ATM receipts, cell phone records, time-stamped photos and the testimony of the cab driver who took Seligmann home the night of the off-campus party where the woman, hired to perform as an exotic dancer, said she had been attacked.

"I don't know much about the law," Seligmann said, "but you hear the word alibi, and you think that's one of the first things a prosecutor would want to have. You don't charge an innocent person. I could never understand it."

The three-member panel hearing the case is expected to deliver a verdict not long after the trial concludes, perhaps as early as Saturday.

Nifong has declined several requests for interviews in recent months. His last public comment on the case before the ethics trial was a one-page statement released the day the case collapsed. In it, he apologized, but only "to the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who in April said the three athletes were "innocent" victims of a rogue prosecutor's "tragic rush to accuse," declined to comment. Gov. Mike Easley, who appointed Nifong to the job and will be called on to pick his replacement, also had no comment, a spokeswoman said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.