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Ethics Trial Begins For Prosecutor Who Charged Duke University Lacrosse Players

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ More than a year after shocking allegations emerged about Duke University's lacrosse team, prosecutor Mike Nifong was back in court Tuesday _ this time as the defendant.

The North Carolina State Bar charged the Durham County district attorney with several violations of the state's rules of professional conduct, all tied to his handling of the lacrosse case.

Nifong won indictments against three lacrosse players last year after a woman hired as a stripper for a team party in March 2006 said she was raped. One of three had graduated, but Duke suspended the other two. Criticism of Nifong's evidence and handling of the case increased through the summer, then when the bar filed its initial ethics charges, Nifong turned the case over to the state attorney general, who dropped all the charges.

``This didn't have to happen, and the horrible consequences were entirely foreseeable,'' Katherine Jean, the bar official prosecuting Nifong, said during her 25-minute opening statement. ``The harm done to these three young men and their families and the justice system of North Carolina is devastating.''

The trial is expected to run for five days, and the hearing commission chairman promised a quick verdict. If convicted, Nifong could be disbarred.

Reporters and observers _ including the mothers of David Evans and Collin Finnerty, two of the once-charged and now cleared lacrosse players _ packed the state Court of Appeals courtroom. Finnerty and the third player, Reade Seligmann, are expected to attend the trial at some point. Attorneys for all three players were in the courtroom Tuesday.

Nifong aggressively pursued the case against the players, at one point calling the lacrosse team ``a bunch of hooligans'' in a newspaper interview.

That interview, along with several others made in the case's early days, formed the basis of the bar's initial complaint against Nifong, which said he made misleading and inflammatory comments to the media about the athletes.

``I believe you will hear him testify that he regrets making those statements,'' said Nifong's attorney, David Freedman, in his opening statement.

Freedman recounted the very early days of the case, highlighting evidence he said led Nifong to believe a crime had occurred. ``It is not unethical to pursue what someone may believe to be an unwinnable case,'' he said.

The bar also alleged that Nifong withheld evidence from defense attorneys and that he lied to both to the court and bar investigators.

In her opening, Jean detailed Nifong's meetings with the director of a DNA laboratory he hired, at which she said Nifong learned that none of the players' DNA matched that material found in and on the accuser. The bar has accused Nifong of keeping those test results from the defense.

Nifong asked the North Carolina Attorney General's office to take over the lacrosse prosecution in January. By then, most experts and legal observers had long since concluded the case could not be won.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper agreed in April and dropped all charges against the three players. In a stunning rebuke, Cooper said there was no rape or attack, calling the indicted players ``innocent'' victims of a rogue prosecutor's ``tragic rush to accuse.''
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