North Carolina’s top prosecutor dropped all charges Wednesday against the three former Duke University men’s lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a Black exotic dancer at an off-campus party, saying the athletes were innocent victims of a “tragic rush to accuse” by an overreaching district attorney.
“There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a damning assessment of Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong’s handling of the sensational case.
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation “led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred.”
“I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies,” Cooper said.
Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted in a bathroom during a team party where she had been hired to perform. The rape charges were later dropped, but the other charges remained.
The case stirred furious debate over race, class and the privileged status of college athletes, and heightened longstanding tensions in Durham between its large working-class Black population and the mostly White, mostly affluent students at the private, elite university.
According to Cooper, the charges were dropped in part because the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the woman’s story, no other witness corroborated it and the woman contradicted herself.
“Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges,” he said.
However, Cooper said no charges will be brought against the accuser, saying she “may actually believe” the many different stories she told. “We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges,” he said.
Portraying Nifong as a “rogue prosecutor,” Cooper called for the passage of a law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove a district attorney in the interest of justice.
“This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor,” he said.
Cooper declined to say whether he believes Nifong should be disbarred, saying it would not be fair to pass judgment before he goes on trial before the state bar in June.
The Duke case was troubled almost from the start. DNA failed to connect any of the athletes to the 28-year-old dancer. One of the athletes claimed to have ATM receipts and time-stamped photos that provided an alibi. It was also learned that the woman had leveled similar gang-rape allegations a decade ago, and no charges resulted.
The case came down to her word against the athletes, and her story kept changing. In December, Nifong dropped the rape charges after the woman said she was no longer certain she was penetrated.
Nifong came under furious criticism from the community, the university and other members of the bar for pressing ahead with a case that they said seemed pitifully weak.
Nifong withdrew from the case in January after the North Carolina bar charged him with making misleading and inflammatory comments to the media about the athletes. It later added more serious charges of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court.
Among other things, Nifong called the athletes “a bunch of hooligans” and flatly declared DNA evidence would identify the guilty. He was also accused of withholding the results of lab tests that found DNA from several men, none of them lacrosse team members, on the accuser’s underwear and body.
Duke suspended the three players after their arrest. Finnerty and Seligmann, both underclassmen, were invited to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Evans graduated the day before he was indicted.
In the uproar over the allegations, Duke canceled the rest of the team’s 2006 season, the lacrosse coach was fired and a schism opened up on the faculty between those who supported the athletes and those who accused them of getting away with loutish frat-boy behavior for too long.
The team resumed play this year.
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