The North Carolina bar filed ethics charges Thursday against Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case, accusing him of making misleading and inflammatory statements to the media about the athletes under suspicion.
The punishment for ethics violations can range from admonishment to disbarment. The complaint could also force Nifong off the case by creating a conflict of interest.
"He's got this hanging over his head," said Thomas Metzloff, a Duke law professor and member of the bar's ethics committee for the last 10 years. "It relates so much to his underlying conduct in the case."
Among the four rules of professional conduct Nifong is accused of violating is a prohibition against making comments "that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."
In a statement, the bar said it opened a case against Nifong on March 30, a little more than two weeks after a 28-year-old woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party said she was gang-raped.
The ethics charges will be heard by an independent body made up of both lawyers and nonlawyers. A date for the hearing has not been set.
Nifong did not immediately return a call for comment. But in an October interview with the Associated Press, he said his only regret in handling the case was speaking so often to the media in the investigation's early days.
"Certainly what I was trying to do was to reassure the community, to encourage people with information to come forward," Nifong said.
The bar cited 41 quotations and eight paraphrased statements made to reporters, saying many amounted to "improper commentary about the character, credibility and reputation of the accused" or their alleged unwillingness to cooperate.