RALEIGH, N.C. - Facing ethics charges that could lead to his disbarment, the district attorney in the Duke lacrosse sexual-assault case has asked the State Attorney General's Office to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the case.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said in an e-mail yesterday that Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong had sent a letter requesting the special prosecutor. Talley did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Attorney General Roy Cooper's office declined to comment on whether it would take the case. Officials planned to speak with reporters today.

Nifong did not return several calls from the Associated Press. His attorney, David Freedman, insisted that the veteran prosecutor was not running from a weak case and that Nifong was disappointed that he would not be able to take the case to trial.

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

Nifong met with the accuser this week to tell her of his decision, Freedman said.

Last month, the North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with violating four rules of professional conduct, saying he had made misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion.

From the case's earliest days last year, Nifong has led the investigation into allegations that a 28-year-old student at North Carolina Central University - hired to perform as a stripper - was gang-raped and beaten at a party March 13 thrown by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team.

The accuser is said to have told wildly different versions of the alleged assault; a shifting story led Nifong to drop rape charges Dec. 22.

It was not immediately clear what effect Nifong's decision would have on the prosecution of the accused players, Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans, who have insisted they are innocent.

Cooper's office has previously declined to comment when asked about the prospect of taking over the case.

"If he accepts it, then they would transfer the files over, and they would probably have a lot of interviews to do," said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. "It would probably stop things for a while, I imagine."

Under North Carolina law, only a district attorney may formally request a special prosecutor. The request can be made when potential conflicts of interest exist, 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 to 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."

Legal experts and observers have railed against Nifong in recent weeks, calling his case pitifully weak and casting doubt on his chance of winning.

James P. Cooney III, an attorney for Seligmann, said: "I think we're all delighted that we're going to have objective and competent prosecutors reviewing this case. We look forward to cooperating with those prosecutors fully and completely in bringing this prosecution to an end."

Wade Smith, an attorney for Finnerty, also said he was pleased and pledged to meet with any new prosecutors. He said: "We will assist them in every way we can."

John Burness, Duke University's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a statement that the university welcomed yesterday's development and that "we hope this change will lead to a fair and speedy resolution of this case," the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

University officials last week invited Finnerty and Seligmann to return to campus as students in good standing. Evans graduated in May a day before he was charged.