Mike Nifong goes to jail Friday. And on Saturday, having spent 24 hours behind bars on contempt of court charges, the former Durham district attorney will be released in time to catch Booker T. and the MG's that night at the Bull Durham Blues Festival.
The cost to taxpayers of Nifong's sleepover is roughly $77. But the price to learn the truth about the Duke lacrosse case is exorbitant. The Committee to Investigate the Durham Police Department, a 12-member group appointed by the city council earlier this year, has temporarily suspended its work, pending potential civil lawsuits against DPD filed by the falsely accused lacrosse players. What the committee may find in its parsing of the public record could supply the defense with enough ammunition to bomb the city in litigation. Durham's insurance carrier considers the case radioactive and has advised city officials that it may lose its coverage. (This scenario is much like health care in America: Pay your premiums, contract a dire disease, and your insurance suddenly evaporates—but that discussion is for another time.)
So Thursday, as Nifong says his final goodbyes to his family before going to the county lockup for a day, the council, in a private meeting with the city's legal team, will be confronted with a choice that carries lasting ramifications: Authorize the committee to continue its probe into DPD's role in the case, the results of which could financially cripple the city. Or instruct the committee to stop looking for the truth, which essentially absolves anyone of any wrongdoing. After all, you're guilty only if you get caught.
What do police often say to suspects? If you're innocent, you have nothing to worry about. But then again, the three lacrosse players thought they had nothing to worry about. If you believe then-Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers, then all this legal hand-wringing is unnecessary. In a May 11, 2007, letter to City Manager Patrick Baker, Chalmers defended his department's protocol and pursuit of the truth in the investigation; Baker in turn sent a memo to Mayor Bill Bell and city council members seconding Chalmers' claims that the photo lineups presented to the accuser were never intended to flush out suspects—which is what occurred—but only to identify party attendees.
"The ultimate question that will be the legacy of this matter is why it took the criminal justice system nearly 13 months to reach the conclusion that the allegations of rape, sexual assault and kidnapping were unfounded," Baker wrote.
The legacy of this matter is the absence of truth and transparency. The committee must continue its investigation into DPD's actions, regardless of the expense. Durhamites will pay, either way.