North Carolina's attorney general declared three former Duke University lacrosse players who had been accused of gang-raping a stripper innocent of all charges on Wednesday, ending a prosecution that provoked bitter debate over race, class, and the tactics of the Durham County district attorney.
The attorney general, Roy A. Cooper, said the players had been wrongly accused by an "unchecked" and "overreaching" district attorney who had ignored contradictory evidence and instead relied on the stripper's "faulty and unreliable" accusations.
"We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," Cooper said at a news conference.
"We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred," he added.
Cooper said he had considered but ultimately rejected bringing criminal charges against the accuser, who continues to insist she was attacked at a team party on March 13, 2006, and asked him to go forward with the case.
Cooper said his investigators had told him that the woman "may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling." He said his decision not to charge her with making false accusations was also based on a review of sealed court files, which include records of the woman's mental health history.
Cooper reserved his harshest criticism for the Durham County district attorney, Michael B. Nifong, at one point even depicting him as a "rogue prosecutor."
"In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked," said Cooper, who took over the case in January. "There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado. And in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."
Nevertheless, Cooper said that for now he would leave any official sanctions to the North Carolina State Bar, which has already taken the extraordinary step of formally accusing Nifong of numerous ethical violations, including withholding exculpatory evidence and misleading the judge who presided over the case. Cooper said he would instead seek new legislation to give the state Supreme Court greater power to remove prosecutors.
"We need to learn from this and keep it from happening again," he said.
At an emotional news conference of their own on Wednesday, the three former teammates, flanked by defense lawyers and families, spoke of relief and vindication, but also of their lingering anger toward Nifong and many in the news media for what they described as a rush to believe the worst about them.
"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed," one of the players, Reade W. Seligmann, said.
"If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they'd do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it.
"The Duke lacrosse case has shown that our society has lost sight of the most fundamental principle of our legal system: the presumption of innocence."
Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J.; David F. Evans, 24, of Annapolis, Md.; and Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., were initially charged with rape, sexual offense and kidnapping — crimes that could have put them in prison for three decades. From the start, all three repeatedly proclaimed their innocence. "These allegations are lies," Evans insisted on the day of his indictment.
On Wednesday, Evans looked across a roomful of reporters and said, "We are just as innocent today as we were back then."
Nifong could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Candy Clark, his administrative assistant, said she had called him to describe what the attorney general had said and ask what he wanted to say to the news media. "What he told me to tell everyone was that he was unavailable today, but that he would be returning to the office tomorrow," Clark said late Wednesday.
Nifong has denied violating any ethics rules, although he has acknowledged mishandling some evidence and making intemperate and unjustified remarks about the Duke lacrosse team. In the first weeks of his investigation, for example, Nifong told reporters he was certain that a rape had occurred and called the lacrosse players "hooligans" who were hiding behind a "wall of silence."
In fact, three co-captains, including Evans, had cooperated fully with the police. Other team members canceled interviews on the advice of lawyers. "There was never a blue wall of silence," Evans said Wednesday.
If the ethics charges against him are upheld, Nifong faces a range of possible penalties, including disbarment. A preliminary hearing Friday will decide Nifong's motion to dismiss the most serious charges.
Some parents of the players, meanwhile, have suggested that they might sue Nifong and Durham County. "All options are on the table," Joseph B. Cheshire, a lawyer for Evans, said Wednesday when asked about possible legal action against Nifong.
The players' accuser could not be reached for comment.
Duke's president, Richard H. Brodhead, the target of harsh criticism throughout the case, particularly from supporters of the three players, issued a statement welcoming the exonerations and praising the players. "They have carried themselves with dignity through an ordeal of deep unfairness," Brodhead said.
Even some community leaders who had argued that the case should have been tried in court did not object to Cooper's decision. The North Carolina NAACP issued a statement saying it respected the job the attorney general had done, Al McSurely, a lawyer who monitored the case for the NAACP, said in a telephone interview. Likewise, one of the nation's largest anti-sexual assault groups, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, released a statement saying it was satisfied with the attorney general's decision to drop all charges.
With its overtones of race, sex and privilege, the Duke case instantly drew national news media attention. The accuser was a poor, black, local single mother working at an escort service while enrolled at the predominately black North Carolina Central University in Durham; the Duke students were relatively well-off, white out-of-staters — members of a storied lacrosse team at one of the nation's most prestigious universities. The accuser's vivid account of racist and misogynistic taunts fueled a simmering debate about the off-field behavior of elite athletes and the proper role of big-time sports on America's college campuses.
Yet as the months passed, as the specifics of her accusations kept shifting, and as defense lawyers highlighted other glaring weaknesses and contradictions in the evidence, the case came to be seen by many as justice run off the rails by political correctness and the political ambitions of Nifong.
When the accusations arose, Nifong was in a close political campaign. Appointed acting district attorney in 2005 by Gov. Michael F. Easley, he was seeking election against a better-known opponent. Nifong, who mentioned the case at some campaign appearances, won the crucial primary election — and most of the black vote — on May 2, weeks after announcing indictments against two of the players.
The players' supporters have long contended that Nifong used the Duke case to advance his political prospects.
"In his search for a false conviction, this is a man who appealed to racial and class hatred," Cheshire said at Wednesday's press conference.
Nifong just as vehemently denied the accusations of political manipulation. But in bringing charges, Nifong discounted evidence of innocence — including alibi evidence from time-stamped photographs and cell phone records — and relied almost entirely on the woman's photo identification of the three suspects and on a report by the sexual assault nurse who examined the woman the night of the attack.
The photo lineup procedure appeared to violate Durham, state and federal guidelines. Police, instructed by Nifong, showed the woman pictures only of lacrosse team members, with no filler photographs of people who could not possibly be suspects.
The sexual assault nurse's report of blunt force trauma was undermined by other accounts of her activities as a stripper on the weekend before the lacrosse party. There was no other forensic evidence to support her account. And other than the accuser, no one claimed to have witnessed the assault —including a second dancer hired for the evening and the 20 or so men at the party.
Cooper succinctly summed up the evidence this way: "No DNA confirms the accuser's story. No other witness confirms her story. Other evidence contradicts her story. She contradicts herself."