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D.A. Nifong asks to be removed from case

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As he aggressively pursued sexual assault
charges against three Duke lacrosse players for nearly 10 months,
Mike Nifong never wavered publicly in his commitment to take the
oft-sensationalized case to trial.

But facing ethics charges that could lead to his disbarment, the
Durham County district attorney quietly asked to be removed from
the case Friday -- faxing a letter to the state attorney general
asking for a special prosecutor to take over the case that is sure
to define his nearly three-decade career.

"His withdrawing from the case has nothing to do with how he
feels about the merit of the case," Nifong's attorney, David
Freedman, told The Associated Press. "He's disappointed he has to
get out of the case. He likes to see things from beginning to
end."

What comes next in the troubled prosecution of Reade Seligmann,
Collin Finnerty and David Evans will likely be determined by the
lawyer appointed by State Attorney General Roy Cooper. His office
declined to comment Friday night, but a spokeswoman said officials
would speak with reporters Saturday afternoon.

"If he decides to take it, his staff is going to spend a
significant amount of time to review the case files, interviewing
the witnesses and making a determination on what is the proper
process," said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina
Conference of District Attorneys.

Dorer said that could take a month or more. Defense attorneys
said they weren't worried about the prospect of such a delay, and
instead cheered Nifong's decision to recuse himself.

"We've tried to cooperate with Mr. Nifong, and he's refused,"
said Joseph Cheshire, an attorney for Evans. "We look forward to
working with whoever the new prosecutor is and we're confident that
after that review is made, the case will be dismissed."

Under North Carolina law, only a district attorney can formally
request a special prosecutor. The request can be made when there
are potential conflicts of interest, when a case is particularly
complex or when there are other unusual circumstances.

Once the ethics charges were filed, Nifong "had a conflict of
interest with respect with the case," said Ron Sullivan, a
criminal law professor at Yale University. "It's probably safe to
say that Nifong felt that he couldn't be completely objective."

Nifong led the investigation into allegations a 28-year-old
student at North Carolina Central University -- hired to perform as
an exotic dancer -- was gang-raped and beaten at a March 13 party thrown
by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team. His frequent interviews with
news agencies in the early days of the case generated much
scrutiny; at one point, he called the lacrosse team "a bunch of
hooligans."

But as he started to hand over his evidence to the defense, the
case appeared to unravel. Legal experts and observers have said it
appears to be based only on the testimony of an accuser who has
told wildly different versions of the alleged assault -- a shifting
story that led Nifong to drop rape charges on Dec. 22. The three
players remain charged with sexual offense and kidnapping.

Last month, the North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with
violating four rules of professional conduct for making misleading
and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. He
faces penalties ranging from admonishment to removal from the bar.

"He feels as a result of the accusations against him that he
would be a distraction and he wants to make sure the accuser
receives a fair trial," said Freedman, who said Nifong met with
the accuser this week to tell her of his decision.

"He still believes in the case," Freedman said. "He just
believes his continued presence would hurt her."