This past May, at the Junior League of Raleigh where a federal judge was delivering a speech on the importance of courts, an audience member wearing a T-shirt that read "Justice for Mike Nifong" raised his hand. He was a retired physician, he explained, worried about the integrity of the criminal justice system: "What I'm talking about, specifically, is the case against Crystal Mangum."
Audience members fidgeted. A stripper and single mother, Mangum gained national notoriety in 2006 after accusing members of the Duke lacrosse team of raping her at a party where they had hired her to dance. District Attorney Michael Nifong filed charges, which North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper later dropped due to lack of evidence. The media lashed out at Mangum, who is African-American, for falsely accusing white players, and Nifong became the first sitting district attorney in North Carolina to be disbarred. Now, in a separate case, Mangum stands accused of first-degree murder for stabbing her boyfriend in 2011. She pleaded not guilty, and her trial, originally scheduled for last month, has been continued until November.
The physician's name tag read "Sidney Harr." Harr has long been a vigilante advocate for Mangum and Nifong. He runs the Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong, with a website displaying more than two dozen headshots of people seemingly proud to champion the ex-district attorney's cause. Newspapers have quoted him several times on the Magnum case, and The Durham News has run three of his columns, including one on June 28 titled "Mangum victim of vendetta."
But Harr's advocacy for Mangum could harm her chances for a fair trial. Three of her attorneys have withdrawn, in part because of Harr's interference. Last year he posted on his website sealed case files that she gave him. He also filed a series of motions using her name, accusing her lawyer of ineffective counsel. The North Carolina Bar asked Harr to stop, but instead he used his own name to file 74 pages of exhibits, including police and hospital reports. The Bar sued, accusing him of practicing law without a license, and in February a Wake County judge forbade him from further involvement.
"He keeps putting her information out there, and the last thing Crystal Mangum needs is more publicity," said former attorney Woody Vann.
Despite Harr's reputation as a public gadfly and Nifong's biggest supporter, most people know little about the man and his motivations. It is not well-known that after going broke in California, he bounced around with his wife, leaving a trail of sensational lawsuits marked by paranoia. Between 1985 and 1997, Harr was a party to at least 27 lawsuits in California, Arizona and Ohio. He sought hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for civil rights violations, employment discrimination and fraud.
"He confidently moved from city to city wrecking people's lives and careers," said Dwight James, a physician who runs a practice in Porterville, Calif.
Back at the Junior League, Harr was about two minutes into his defense of Mangum when he was cut off.
"Dr. Harr," said the judge who delivered the speech, "there is no answer to your question that will help you, specifically. I don't have that magic wand."
Harr moved to Raleigh from Ohio in 2005 to be closer to his stepdaughter. However, he wasn't tied to the Duke lacrosse case from the beginning, nor was he involved in Nifong's successful re-election campaign that year. In 2007, when two dozen supporters escorted Nifong to jail with signs reading, "We believe in your integrity and goodness," Harr was absent.
"That was the high point of [Nifong's] popular support," recalled K.C. Johnson, a Brooklyn College history professor and co-author of Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case. "Most people assumed it was the last we'd hear from the supporters. There was no suggestion that Nifong would ever get his license back."
In 2008, however, Harr emerged. That June, he co-founded his Nifong committee with another activist, Victoria Peterson, and launched his website, with early blog posts carrying titles such as, "Why the re-instatement of Mike Nifong's license to practice law is important to North Carolina justice." (More recent posts address Mangum and other social justice issues.)
The site links to court documents and merchandise, as well as Marvel-style comic strips with heroes and villains, illustrated by Harr, who has an art background. It's unclear who the "committee" is. Only the members' names and photos are posted. (Several members didn't return phone messages, and Peterson referred questions about committee members to Harr.)
These days, Johnson said, "We say 'the committee,' but we're really talking about, at most, two people." Regarding Harr's motivations, he could only speculate. "He came to see Nifong as a fundamentally wronged figure in a personal way. That's the only explanation that makes sense."
He added, "He seems to think that everyone's out to get him."
In late May, Harr boarded a 6:45 a.m. train to Durham for an interview at a local coffee shop. Sporting a gray-and-magenta Nifong T-shirt, he handed me a business card with a cartoon rendering of N.C. Attorney General Cooper, depicted as a bungling caped villain.
The 65-year-old had a collection of impish freckles and bushy white eyebrows. He remained chipper and kind throughout the conversation.
"The justice system in North Carolina has become hijacked," he explained. "My objective is to encourage the State Bar to unilaterally and unconditionally reinstate Mike Nifong's license to practice law in North Carolina." He described Nifong as "a combination of Eliot Ness and Wyatt Earp in his commitment, integrity and independence."
The only requirement for being a Nifong committee member, he said, "is lending your name and face." Asked about his personal relationship with Nifong, he said, "Mike appreciates what I'm doing." But pressed for his phone number, he backtracked. "I haven't really talked to him for a while."
Harr bases his support for Mangum on medical reports he obtained. He blames a Duke University Hospital error for her boyfriend's death. He contends that Mangum stabbed Reginald Daye in self-defense, and that Daye died 10 days later not from the stab wound but from cardiac arrest and brain death induced by a tracheal tube mistakenly inserted into his esophagus. The deputy medical examiner, Clay Nichols, wrote a "fraudulent" autopsy report under pressure from "the powers that be," Harr said. (A Duke Hospital representative and Nichols declined to comment.)
"What's happening to Crystal is the same thing that happened to Mike Nifong," said Harr, referring to Duke's legal clout. "But she won't go to trial. Not as long as I can help it."
A year before her murder charge, Mangum faced accusations of first-degree arson following a dispute with another boyfriend. A handful of activists, including Harr, spoke with Mangum about her legal options, prompting her public defender, Clayton Jones, to withdraw. "No one in the Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong has ever been to a day of law school," Jones griped to The N&O. In the same article, Harr admonished Jones for offering a plea deal. The case went to trial; the jury deadlocked.
By the time of Daye's stabbing, Harr had become Mangum's most vocal defender, visiting her in jail and writing briefs on her behalf. He obsessively typed up voluminous blog posts in which he lambasted her lawyer, Chris Shella, calling him part of the conspiracy against her. "That [Shella] has not filed any motions on her behalf also speaks to his culpability in this nefarious scheme."
Shella withdrew from the case. Harr staged a press conference. "The truth will set Crystal Mangum free," he said.
After her next attorney, Woody Vann, was appointed, he began another round of critiques, calling him "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Vann withdrew — a "wonderful idea," Harr told reporters — and Mangum began representing herself under Harr's guidance. When the Bar lodged its complaint against Harr, Mangum allowed a new attorney, Scott Holmes, to step in. Holmes declined to comment.
At the coffee shop, Harr was reticent to talk about himself. He grew up in Takoma, Wash., and attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. He enrolled in Oregon Health & Science University, specializing in emergency medicine. With his medical degree, he later worked in a Palm Springs, Calif., emergency room before getting "burned out," he said. On top of his E.R. shifts he took architecture courses at California State Polytechnic University–Pomona, but was expelled for failing just one class, he said. "I know what it feels like to be blacklisted."
Now retired, he said money isn't a problem thanks to his medical career. As for a social life, "I don't have one. Maybe it's because I still wear the wedding ring," he said, nodding toward the gold band on his finger. His wife died of cancer in 2005.
At one point a rubber ball rolled to our table, and Harr returned it to its owner, a toddler in pigtails. "Here you go, sweetheart," he said. Later, outside, he offered a concerned smile to a wheelchair-bound man struggling to maneuver down the sidewalk.
One day in 1996, Dwight James, a doctor running a clinic for low-income patients in Indio, Calif., received unwelcome news. A county judge had issued an injunction stripping him of control of the clinic. In court, James learned that staff physician Sidney Harr had presented the judge with a contract ostensibly signed by James agreeing to sell a portion of the clinic to Harr for a dollar.
"He forged my signature pretty good," James said on the phone from California, explaining that he never saw or signed the contract. "He thought he could bamboozle us. And he got pretty close."
Harr joined James' clinic in 1995. Fashioning himself as a Robin Hood figure, Harr placed an ad in a Spanish-language newspaper outlining what he called abuses against the clinic's patients. He wrote a list of demands for clinic CEO James Oudin, accusing him of embezzling money.
In turn, James fired Harr, who successfully petitioned a judge to grant him control of the clinic. Harr told the judge he sought 100 percent ownership of the clinic and intended to use it to launch similar low-income facilities across the country. "He was always for the rights of the people," one staff member recalled. New locks were installed, and a bodyguard accompanied Harr when he returned to see patients.
James hired a lawyer. (During litigation it emerged that Oudin had failed to pay more than $1 million in debts. More recently he was convicted of murdering his sister. In 1997 James pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute opioids and spent 10 months in prison before reestablishing his practice.)
Eventually, the judge chastised Harr for misleading him. Harr dropped the lawsuit "so I can put this all behind me and get on with my life," he told the Indio Desert Sun.
That episode was among several that hobbled Harr's medical career. In 1991, according to Internet records, he filed for bankruptcy. The California state government took out thousands of dollars in liens against him.
Most, if not all, of Harr's court cases—at least 30—were dismissed, usually by him. He served as his own attorney, and his incoherent, rambling manner revealed a paranoid and obsessed man. Like his comic strips, his complaints spooled out like a pulp detective novel, making it difficult to tell fact from fiction.
In an 88-page civil rights complaint, for example, he claimed that more than 50 defendants, including hospital staff, "fraudulently misrepresented him as being wanted by the FBI for art fraud and drug trafficking ... committing acts of assault, battery, and kidnapping against him." The complaint detailed a high-speed Mercedes Benz crash, a love tryst, bomb threats, FBI impersonators and a conspiracy to commit murder. Parts of the complaint read less like an accusation than a cry for help from a man who'd lost his way.
Harr dismissed the case after a letter sent to his listed address came back marked "return to sender." (Between 1992 and 1996, Harr claimed to have property at 14 addresses in California, Arizona, Washington and Ohio.)
"I trusted him because he was a doctor," recalled a landlord who rented him an apartment in Needles, Calif., but never received payment. Deeming the property abandoned, the landlord cut off the power. Several weeks later, Harr sued.
"Dr. Harr said he was using the home to care for an AIDS patient, and that I was endangering patients in his care," recalled the landlord, asking that his name not be used. "But how could he have a clinic there if he didn't have power?"
Harr dropped the suit, but it cost the landlord $10,000.
Attorney Anthony Bestard, who once represented Harr, said his client lived an opulent lifestyle. Harr invited him to stay for a weekend at his luxury condo in Rancho Mirage while he was away, he said. As Bestard and his children played in the pool, he recalled, managers escorted them off the premises because Harr had been evicted. "I felt like persona non grata," he said. (Harr unsuccessfully sued Bestard, claiming he'd leased the apartment and reneged on the rent.)
In another suit, Harr's former boss at a West Virginia E.R. wrote that Harr's "paranoid behavior interfered with his ability to work and see patients." The paranoia "became progressively more pronounced when he was here."
Harr called the remarks libelous and demanded $110 million in damages. He dismissed that case after a letter sent to his listed address came marked "return to sender."
Those who recall Harr's legal gambits echo a common refrain: They weren't originally his idea. That task fell to his wife.
Rosana Harr, whose maiden name was Toms, was an art lover from North Carolina, a decade older than her husband. Harr once claimed that Toms hailed from one of the country's largest African-American families, with 172 nieces and nephews. He met her in 1987 at the Palm Springs E.R. where he worked. She had arrived with her granddaughter, who was suffering from seizures. Harr and Toms formed a bond.
Whereas Harr was shy and polite, Toms was flamboyant and direct. James called Toms "vicious." The landlord said, "It was like she was using his credibility to get the apartment without intending to pay." Bestard alleged Toms didn't pay the artists she commissioned for her gallery.
After James fired him in 1995, Harr opened his own clinic across the street. During its brief existence Toms performed an administrative role. But one physician alleged some patients didn't receive the care they sought, for financial reasons. Another claimed in a lawsuit that Toms "forcibly evicted" him from the clinic and "battered" him.
Toms' 47-year-old daughter now lives in Raleigh, and this past June she met me inside the lobby of the Cameron Village Regional Library. She wore a crisp polo shirt, thick glasses and khakis, and asked that she only be referred to by her first name, Spencer. Although she isn't related by blood to Harr, "I call him my best dad," she said.
A writer and an academic, Spencer described Harr as a compassionate "superhero," not unlike a character from one of his comic strips. Just as Clark Kent emerges from a phone booth as Superman, the naturally shy Harr can slip into his Nifong T-shirt and transform into an outspoken crusader for justice.
She called her mother a "free spirit," buoyed by creativity and full of love. Toms taught Harr about the civil rights era, schooling him on justice and inequality in the South. She called him "my Sid," and he called her "baby," Spencer said.
Most of all, Toms simply accepted him. "She gave him the unconditional support to be his true self," said Spencer. "To be Sid."
She chuckled. "You can imagine, not everyone gets Sid."
It's Harr's commitment to justice that sustains him, she said. "He taught me to never be afraid to fight for what I believe in." To any critic who calls his advocacy irrelevant, "that's myopic. There's a larger issue they're missing. He sees what's happening to Nifong and Crystal Mangum, and it's all about justice in the broadest sense. At the very least, he's starting a discussion. At best, change happens."
While some people discount Harr because of his eccentricities, others might applaud his willingness to address issues such as race, class and privilege—ideas never fully reckoned with during the lacrosse chaos. And in that context, a certain honesty to Harr emerges. In an era of Mangum fatigue, Harr refuses to look the other way.
Mangum symbolizes a host of uncomfortable ideas, like mental illness and social order, according to Wahneema Lubiano, the associate chairwoman of Duke University's Department of African & African American Studies. "And frankly we should be uncomfortable," she said, "but the discomfort should take a different form than collectively rolling our eyes."
During the Trayvon Martin trial, prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel caused similar unease. After peppering her testimony on the witness stand with slang quotes like, "You ain't get that from me," viewers stopped talking about the case and started analyzing Jeantel's colloquialisms, appearance and skin color. "The vitriolic wave of hatred directed to her was absolutely amazing," said Lubiano. "We might stop to ask ourselves, what does this discomfort tell us about something that's more socially general?"
Spencer acknowledged her protectiveness of her stepfather. "He's so caring, and I never want anyone to take advantage of his kindness. He's been through a lot." She declined to delve deeply into Harr's past troubles.
"That's the thing about superheroes. They're flawed."
A week after taking the early train to Durham, Harr agreed to another interview, this time at a library in Raleigh. Inside a private room, he fired up his laptop and exhibited his latest blogs and comics with characteristic enthusiasm.
Asked about his past legal troubles, his mood turned somber, and he began to stare blankly into the computer screen and fiddle with the mouse. His eyes grew misty.
"Do you recall them?"
"Maybe." He paused. "Vaguely."
"Were they related to your leaving medicine?"
"Yes and no," he murmured.
"I don't want this to be about discrediting me for something that happened two decades ago when the most important thing is what's happening to Crystal Mangum," he blurted. "The important thing is that the medical examiner is lying."
I asked about Toms.
"She was the most important person in my life," he said. "She taught me about the law, and about life. Before I met her I had no direction. She gave me my life direction."
What did you mean when you said you were blacklisted?
"I'd gotten a raw deal, just like Mike Nifong got a raw deal, just like Crystal is getting a raw deal," he said, his voice sharpening again.
How was it resolved?
"My wife took care of it."
What does that mean?
"I'm not going to tell you that," he snapped.
"Why do you do what you do for Nifong and Crystal?!"
"Because of my wife!" he cried.
A week later, Harr said he would no longer talk about his personal life. In a text, he wrote: "My past, good and bad made me an effective advocate. But it is very complex and you couldn't do it justice." He signed it with a smiley face emoticon.
More recently he conceded that he wasn't perfect, although he denied forging James' signature. "Oudin was a bad guy, and I had to get out of that clinic as quick as I could," he said. "When you're blacklisted, you don't have many options. I tried to expose Oudin's corruption. My wife saw what was going on, and she helped me get out."
He called Bestard, his former lawyer, "a crook" who stole his property.
Spencer declined a second interview. But she acknowledged her stepfather wasn't meant to be a physician. "He was a good doctor, but he has the gentle soul of an artist."
Last week, Harr filed a 62-page lawsuit against the state, Duke and two federal judges for denying him his First Amendment rights in 2010 after Duke security kicked him off campus and nearly arrested him during a law school panel. He previously had filed a civil rights suit claiming he was being punished for being a Nifong supporter and an African-American. A federal judge dismissed it.
As is his longstanding media policy, Nifong declined to comment for this story. He and Harr have met only a handful of times, but there are parallels between them. Both men tried to take on Duke University, and lost. Both were rebuked by the State Bar. Both declared bankruptcy. Both staked their identities on fighting injustice.
But sometimes a story that appears to be about one person is really about someone else.
When Toms became terminally ill, Harr nursed her like his personal patient. She, in turn, implored Spencer to "take care of my Sid." Harr was at her bedside when she died.
"They were meant for each other," said Spencer, who was in the E.R. when Toms and Harr met; it was Spencer's own infant daughter whose seizures led them to seek care.
Toms' death, said Spencer, devastated Harr.
"When my mother died, he made a promise to himself that he would always strive to be an advocate for justice," said Spencer. "The day she died is the day Sid became a superhero."
Toms gave Harr's life purpose. When that purpose was taken away, Nifong offered another.
Each year on Toms' birthday, Harr handpaints a card and mails it to Spencer. She encourages him to date, but he'll have none of it. He removes his wedding ring only when he travels, giving it to Spencer in case anything happens to him.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The avenger."