Criminal lawyer Kerry Sutton of Durham, N.C., admires local district attorney Mike Nifong. She thinks the Durham county prosecutor is ethical and honest--in short, a solid lawyer. "I have a campaign sign of his in my front yard," she said last week. But Sutton, who is representing one of the 45 Duke lacrosse players who have not been charged in the alleged rape and kidnapping in Durham last month, takes a different line when it comes to Nifong's handling of the controversial case. "I think he's made some decisions I would not have," she said.
Such tentative second-guessing was the least of Nifong's problems. No sooner had he brought indictments against two members of the Duke squad for the March 13 episode than he found himself facing an army of lawyers stretching from Main Street in Durham to some of the most prestigious firms in Washington and New Jersey. Duke's lacrosse team draws students from exclusive private schools in the mid-Atlantic states, and many of the players' families are well connected and ably represented. Within days, the legal battalion gained some ground. New evidence--unseen by Nifong before the indictments-- emerged that could exonerate one of the suspects.
And so a case that from the start had been ghastly to ponder became even messier. The defense lawyers criticized Nifong for bringing the case before he did his homework. They accused him of trying the case in the media. And they whispered that politics was involved. Nifong, they said, was rushing things to show some progress on a case that is racially charged--black victim, white suspects--before May 2, when he seeks election against two Democratic rivals in a county that is 50% white and 40% African American.
Nifong, 55 and a seasoned prosecutor who has tried more than 300 felony cases, granted over 50 media interviews before bringing the indictment. But he has largely clammed up for now. A local attorney who spoke with Nifong last week told TIME the D.A. has no intention--nor any history--of backing down. "He is convinced from the evidence that he has made the right choices," the attorney said.
Much of what transpired on Monday, March 13, at 610 North Buchanan is still unknown or in dispute. What is not is that late that evening, between 30 and 40 members of the Duke lacrosse team gathered at the off-campus house shared by three of the co-captains. The featured entertainment: a pair of black strippers hired for $800 by one of the co-captains using a false name.
According to a court paper based on what the accuser told police, what happened next is this: The two women arrived "around 11:30 p.m." and began their show shortly thereafter. Within 10 minutes, the women halted their act after the men "began to get excited and aggressive." One player held up a broomstick and said, "I'm gonna shove this up you." The two women exited the house and got into a car. One of the suspects approached the car and coaxed the two dancers back inside. Once there, the women were separated. Two men pulled the younger dancer, 27 and a mother of two, into a bathroom. A third man joined them. For the next 30 minutes, the victim told police, she was raped, sexually assaulted and sodomized. She claims she was also "hit, kicked and strangled."