May 3, 2006

Hunt for Great White Duke Defendant Pays Off: Nifong Wins Election

The New York Times reports:

Prosecutor in Duke Case Is Winner in Election

Michael B. Nifong, the Durham County district attorney who has led the prosecution of rape accusations against members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team, narrowly won election to a new four-year term on Tuesday, a margin of victory that suggested both the case and the tension surrounding it would continue.

Mr. Nifong won 45 percent of the vote in the three-person Democratic primary, just ahead of Freda Black, a former assistant district attorney, who won 42 percent. A leading candidate had to exceed 40 percent to avoid a runoff, and Mr. Nifong has no Republican opponent in the general election.

In the weeks after March 14, when a local college student told the police that she had been raped the night before by members of the lacrosse team, Mr. Nifong, 55, assumed a highly publicized role in prosecuting the case, giving scores of interviews to reporters, calling the Duke players hooligans and suggesting that Duke students had avoided punishment for illegal behavior in the past.

The actions of Mr. Nifong, who will now continue to lead the prosecution of the case, have come under sharp criticism by lawyers for the two students who have been indicted for rape, as well as from his two political opponents, who suggested that his aggressive posture was intended to win over black voters. The accuser is black, and the students are white; the racial tension in the case has polarized the city and has brought national attention to the election.

The third candidate in the race, Keith A. Bishop, won 13 percent. Though both candidates had criticized Mr. Nifong, they had stopped short of saying whether they would have chosen to go forward in the case, noting that they had not seen the evidence he had collected.

After winning the election, Mr. Nifong said his victory would have no impact on the case. "The case will still go forward," he said. "The election and the case are totally different things."

Mr. Bishop, who is black and who recently won the endorsement of a prominent black community group in Durham after entering the race in February, said he believed that Mr. Nifong feared that Mr. Bishop would dilute his support among black voters. Durham has 53,832 registered black voters, compared with 79,335 white ones, said Joseph Fedrowitz, a geographer for the Durham County Board of Elections.

Mr. Bishop, a lawyer, noted that Mr. Nifong, who has been a prosecutor for 28 years, had never run for office. Mr. Nifong, who is white, was appointed to the district attorney post last year after his predecessor was appointed to a judgeship. "I believe that was foremost in his calculations," Mr. Bishop said Tuesday of Mr. Nifong's public stance in the case. "He needed to create some momentum. He was unknown."

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