Duke Students on Nifong: "It's About Time"

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The students at Duke University were still adjusting to life back on campus after the winter break but that didn't stop them from spreading the news on Friday afternoon: Durham County D.A. Mike Nifong had just asked the North Carolina Attorney General's office to remove him from the case against three members of the school's lacrosse team. The information went out via instant messages, phone texts, e-mail and old-fashioned word of mouth. Duke, of course, is not a neutral spectator in the controversy. Several students have gone around wearing wristbands that declare "INNOCENT #6, #13, #45 DUKE LACROSSE 2006" — a reference to the team numbers of the three accused. Almost all students cheered the news. "Everybody has been saying that he's got to go," says senior Rachel Weeks. "My friends aren't exactly the ones wearing the wristbands, but it seems that everybody's in agreement about Nifong, and I think that's telling about a community that can be as divisive as ours."

Nifong, who is seen by most students as equal parts villain and punchline, has long been the object of widespread criticism. The series of public statements he made to the media early on put him on shaky ground ethically, and he will likely face a N.C. State Bar hearing in early May for allegedly violating ethics rules. He has hired Winston-Salem attorney David Freedman to represent him. Ironically, Freedman criticized Nifong's handling of the case on television last April. The D.A.'s recusal comes as a relief to many, who believe the action was long overdue. "It doesn't excuse everything he's done, by any means," says junior Elliott Wolf, president of the Duke Student Government. "But it shows that perhaps, perhaps, he has some sliver of rationality after all." Other students don't give Nifong that much credit. "It's ridiculous that he's trying to get out of it now, and it makes him look that much worse," sophomore Duncan Kirby says. "He ruined a couple of really good kids' lives. He should've stopped this a long time ago, but he didn't."

In his letter to N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, Nifong asked that a special prosecutor be assigned to the case, which has its next scheduled hearing on Feb. 5. On Saturday, Cooper said he has asked Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, of his special prosecutions office, to be the primary attorneys in the case.

While the student body has been most solidly behind the accused, the faculty has been split. Nevertheless, the university last month spoke out against the District Attorney and his handling of the case. After news of Nifong's deliberate withholding of exculpatory DNA evidence came out at the Dec. 15 hearing, Duke President Richard Brodhead declared that "the district attorney should now put this case in the hands of an independent party, who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process. Further, Mr. Nifong has an obligation to explain to all of us his conduct in this matter."

That explanation will eventually come out, most probably at his State Bar hearing in May, but for many people, a mere explanation won't be enough to repair the damage they believe he's done to this city, to this university and to its students. "This whole time, it just seemed a little ridiculous that he was pushing on with a case with so little evidence," says senior Alexander Danielides. "But I'm not surprised [that he's removing himself from the case.] I think it's something that should have happened a long time ago. And I think he should apologize to all those involved in the process, including the Duke student body."