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In new book, former Durham DA Mike Nifong speaks about Duke lacrosse case

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HARRY LYNCH - 2006 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Then-Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong listens to courtroom arguments in the case of Duke lacrosse players charged with rape.

Former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong has held his tongue since his career imploded in the Duke lacrosse case. But his thoughts are about to land in bookstores, at length and virtually unchallenged.

“The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities” is scheduled for publication April 8.

The book – $35 in hardback, 650 pages long – bills itself as “the definitive, magisterial account” of a case that generated tens of thousands of news stories, countless blog posts, seemingly endless cable gabfests and a handful of books.

Three Duke lacrosse players were charged with raping and sexually assaulting an escort service dancer, Crystal Gail Mangum, at a team party in March 2006. The players are white and wealthy, Mangum poor and black, and the case blew up into national outrage against the players until the facts emerged: There was no rape; Mangum had made up the story; the players were declared innocent; and Nifong was stripped of his law license.

The case made international headlines and generated a new slang verb: To Nifong is “To use the law to destroy innocent people,” according to the website Urban Dictionary.

The author, William Cohan, is a Duke graduate and former investment banker who has written several well-received books about Wall Street.

Most of the new content in the book comes from Cohan’s interviews with Nifong. In the book, Nifong speaks at length about critical junctures in the case. Cohan allows the former prosecutor’s assertions to go unchallenged.

Nifong said he still believes that Mangum was attacked in the bathroom, as does Cohan.

“I am convinced, frankly, that this woman suffered a trauma that night,” Cohan said in an interview Friday. “Something did happen in that bathroom.”

Cohan is sympathetic to Nifong throughout the book. For example, Cohan writes that the charge that Nifong withheld evidence favorable to the defense was “a red herring.” This runs counter to findings from the N.C. State Bar and a Superior Court judge, who ruled that Nifong lied to the court and withheld evidence that helped prove the players’ innocence.

Nifong could not be reached for comment.

‘Sandbagged’ by Cooper?

One of the key moments in the case was April 11, 2007, when Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped charges and ended the case in a news conference televised live nationally.

Cohan wrote that Cooper “dropped a bombshell” at the news conference by declaring the three players innocent.

In the book, Nifong contends that Cooper declared the players innocent because of pressure from defense lawyers.

“Roy Cooper had some real doubt about what the defense board wanted him to do – that is to declare the boys to be actually innocent – which, of course, is something that’s well beyond the purview of the criminal justice system,” Nifong says in the book. “Roy Cooper would’ve lied if he thought it would help him.”

Nifong said that Cooper’s lead investigators, longtime prosecutors Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, were just as shocked as Nifong by the announcement.

“I have to believe, based on my knowledge of Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, that they were every bit as sandbagged by what happened as I was,” Nifong said.

Coman, who recently retired after 40 years in law enforcement, was the head of the Attorney General’s criminal division, former director of the State Bureau of Investigation, and one of the state’s most respected prosecutors.

Nifong is wrong, Coman said. “These characterizations are figments of his imagination,” he said.

Coman said he and Winstead insisted that Cooper declare the players innocent, and Cooper agreed.

“Roy was absolutely appalled at Nifong’s conduct, which gave the North Carolina justice system a black eye,” Coman said.

Evidence of innocence

Coman said all the physical evidence pointed to innocence – DNA tests; cellphone records of the players and Mangum; photographs and videos; and receipts from a gas station, restaurants and debit cards. One player, whom Coman dubbed “Ansel Adams,” photographed and videoed much of the evening.

“I was just adamant,” Coman said. “She lied, she made up a story, and damn it, we’ve got to do the right and ethical thing.”

Coman and Winstead said they were not contacted for the book. Cohan wrote that he tried to interview Cooper, who declined to speak with him.

In 2007, Cooper released a 21-page report explaining the evidence of the players’ innocence; Coman and Winstead wrote the report.

Cohan has filed a lawsuit trying to obtain the underlying documents for the report from Cooper’s office. Under North Carolina state law, criminal investigative records are not public.

Cooper declined to discuss the book with The News & Observer.

Neff: 919-829-4516
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