Prosecutors drop charges in Duke case |

Prosecutors drop charges in Duke case

** THIS CORRECTS TODAY'S DATE TO APRIL 11, 2007 ** FILE ** From left are Duke lacrosse players Reade Seligmann, of Essex Fells, N.J., David Evans, of Bethesda, Md., and Collin Finnerty, of Garden City, N.Y., arriving at court in Durham, N.C., in these Dec. 15, 2006 file photos. The Duke University lacrosse team members could learn as early as Wednesday April 11, 2007 whether state prosecutors will drop the remaining charges accusing them of sexually assaulting a stripper at a team party. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH, N.C. ” North Carolina’s top prosecutor dropped all charges Wednesday against the three former Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a 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 Mike Nifong’s handling of the sensational, racially charged case. “In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”

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 to a lot of people,” Cooper said in a news conference held before dozens of reporters in the press room at the arena where Raleigh’s NHL team plays.

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 the bathroom at an off-campus house during a team party where she had been hired to perform. The rape charges were later dropped; until Wednesday, the other charges remained.

The three young men were expected to appear at a news conference later Wednesday. Their attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment.

Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said before Cooper’s announcement that Nifong has “complete confidence in the attorney general’s office to make the appropriate decision.”

The case stirred furious debate over race, class and the privileged status of college athletes, and heightened long-standing tensions in Durham between its large working-class black population and the mostly white, mostly affluent students at the private, elite university.

The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University; all three Duke players are white.

The attorney general said the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the stripper’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,” Cooper said. He said the charges resulted from a “tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations.”

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.

The accuser’s whereabouts were not immediately known.

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 where justice demands it.

“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 stripper. One of the athletes claimed to have ATM receipts and time-stamped photos that provided an alibi. It was also learned that the stripper 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.

The district attorney 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 under suspicion. 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 Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., after their arrest. Both were invited to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., 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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