AG’s Office Takes Duke Case, Won’t Rule Out Rape Charges

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AG’s Office Takes Duke Case, Won’t Rule Out Rape Charges
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State Office Accepts Durham DA’s Request to Recuse Himself

ABC News Law & Justice Unit

RALEIGH, N.C., Jan. 13, 2007 — North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has announced that his office will take over as prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case.

After the case is reexamined by special prosecutors Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, rape charges could be reinstated against three former Duke University lacrosse players. It’s also possible all charges could be dropped.

When asked about the possibility of new rape charges, Cooper told reporters “anything can happen.”

This comes one day after Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong recused himself from prosecuting a sexual assault and kidnapping case against the three former Duke lacrosse players.

Nifong faxed a letter to Cooper, asking his office to appoint a special prosecutor take his place.

Cooper said he has accepted the request.

“[Nifong’s] basic reasoning,” his attorney, David Freedman, told ABC News, “was that he would be more than a hindrance than a help” as the case moved forward.

Nifong’s letter, sent to Cooper’s office sometime after 2 p.m. ET on Friday, cited charges of ethics violations brought against him by the North Carolina Bar on Dec. 28. Those allegations and the possible disciplinary action against Nifong apparently created a conflict of interest that drove Nifong to step down from the case.

On May 11, a panel of three members from the bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission will decide if Nifong’s behavior warrants punishment, ranging from a private admonition to disbarment. He is accused of making inappropriate comments in the press about the three indicted players and the case against them.

Nifong met with the accuser in his office on Thursday. During that conversation Nifong told the accuser of his decision to recuse himself.

“He wanted to tell her his decision first,” Freedman said. “He is very loyal to her, and he didn’t want her to hear about this through the media.”

Nifong, a career prosecutor for nearly 30 years, was “devastated” by having to prosecute the Duke case, his lawyer said.

“It’s devastating to him,” Freedman said. “He cherishes his reputation as an ethical attorney and prosecutor.”

His resignation does not reflect of the strength of the case overall, Freedman told ABC News, adding, “He believes in the case.”

Separate sources close to the investigation say the accuser has every intention of moving forward and telling her story in court.

North Carolina legal analysts say it is not unusual for a prosecutor to recuse him or herself when charges of unethical conduct arise. What is highly unusual, however, is that a sitting district attorney is targeted for violating standards of professional conduct in an ongoing case.

“It’s extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” said Thomas Lunsford, a member of the North Carolina Bar Ethics Committee and a professor at Duke Law School.

01-13-2007 05:24 PM

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