Nifong Before Lacrosse

The basic tale of Mike Nifong — the disbarred, disgraced, jailed-for-a-day former Durham DA who may yet face a felony prosecution — is widely known. But news reports have barely begun to plumb the depths of what may be the worst prosecutorial misconduct ever exposed while it was happening.

Desperate to win an election against a strong white candidate in a county about evenly divided between whites and blacks, Nifong (also white) seized on a patently incredible, constantly changing rape allegation against Duke lacrosse players. It was made in March 2006 by a deeply disturbed African-American stripper named Crystal Mangum. Using the case to inflame racial discord, the DA rode the black vote to victory.

The problem was that that the rape claim was a transparent fraud. And in hindsight, Nifong’s conduct seems bizarrely self-destructive. What kind of man would try to send three innocent young men to prison for 30 years to win an election? How could a career prosecutor not previously known as a nut or a rogue go so bad, so fast? How could he have thought he would get away with it?

Stuart Taylor and I (who jointly wrote this post, and one later today) have found widespread curiosity about these questions, especially among lawyers, while working on our new book, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case. So this first post in a week of guest-blogging focuses on Nifong’s background, character, and the months of escalating misconduct that have brought him down. Subsequent posts will examine the misconduct (as we see it) of dozens of Duke professors, many journalists, the Duke administration, and the Durham law enforcement establishment.

A North Carolina native, Nifong was an undistinguished student at the state university in Chapel Hill, where he acquired an intense dislike both for Duke students and for lacrosse players, and its law school, from which he graduated in 1978. His first and only job as a lawyer was as an assistant DA in Durham. The competent, if undistinguished, prosecutor tried around 300 felony cases and rose in seniority amid high turnover.

Nifong had a reputation as a tough, sometimes bullying prosecutor. He was known for throwing screaming, obscenity-laden fits at people he thought he could push around. But he was not known as a zealot or as unethical. After a medical leave in the late 1990s, Nifong moved to a sleepy job in traffic court.

Then Governor Mike Easley named Nifong interim DA in April 2005, after elevating his elected predecessor, Jim Hardin, to the bench. Easley later said that Nifong had pledged not to seek election in 2006 for a full four-year term. If so, Nifong violated the pledge. He declared his candidacy a few months later, apparently because his pension was at stake.

His pension? Yes: In his first day as DA, Nifong had fired a longtime rival, Freda Black. She quickly made clear her intent to run in 2006. Well-known from her work in a high-profile murder trial, Black soon became the front-runner. Nifong knew that Black would fire him, as he had fired her, the first chance she got. His concern, he told his initial campaign manager, Jackie Brown, was not that he cared about being DA; he needed another three years in the Durham DA’s office for his pension to fully vest.
Nifong proved an inept candidate. By mid-March, 2006, he was way behind Black and out of money. Even after lending his campaign $30,000 of his own modest savings, he still seemed doomed to defeat.

Enter Crystal Mangum and her fantastic claim of being brutally gang-raped, beaten, kicked, and strangled by three white, out-of-state, supposedly rich Duke lacrosse players. For Nifong, this was a lifeline. And he would define his career by his subsequent actions.