Duke Rape Case Collapses a Year Later

Thursday, April 12th 2007, 8:18 am
By: News On 6

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Nearly a year after calling the rape accusations he and two Duke lacrosse teammates faced nothing but ``fantastic lies,'' David Evans again stood before the cameras and proclaimed his innocence.

This time, there was no room for doubt.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper didn't just dismissed all the remaining criminal charges against Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. He took the extra step of declaring the players innocent _ the victims of a ``tragic rush to accuse'' by a rogue prosecutor who could be disbarred for his actions.

``This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor,'' Cooper said.

The attorney general took over the case in January from Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong after the state bar charged Nifong with ethics violations over his handling of the case. On Wednesday, Cooper said the state's investigation into a stripper's claim that she was sexually assaulted at a team party last spring found nothing to corroborate her story.

The investigation, he said, ``led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred.''

The dismissal brought an abrupt end to a yearlong case that heightened long-standing racial tensions in Durham and ignited a debate of race, sex and class at the private, elite university. The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University, a historically black school; all three Duke players are white.

In the uproar over the allegations, Duke canceled the rest of the team's 2006 season, the lacrosse coach resigned under fire and a schism opened between faculty who supported the athletes and those who accused them of getting away with loutish frat-boy behavior for too long.

``It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure,'' said Evans, his voice breaking at one point. ``We're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed. The facts don't change.''

The notice of dismissal prepared by the attorney general's office for each player declared ``this individual is innocent.''

Joseph Cheshire, who represented Evans, said defense attorneys will soon begin work to have their clients' arrest record expunged. He called Nifong ``a man who had not a care in the world about justice, but only about his personal agenda.''

Finnerty parents, speaking in an interview aired Thursday on CBS's ``The Early Show,'' said the room broke into cheers when they heard the attorney general declare the three innocent.

``He was crying. We were crying, hugging,'' father Kevin Finnerty said. ``I think it was just such a sensitive moment, it just blew us away.''

The past year had been a nightmare for the families as well as the three men and their former teammates, Finnerty's mother, Mary Ellen Finnerty, said.

``Many times, I'd say to the lawyers, 'I feel like there's a mad man chasing my son down the street and there's nothing I can do to stop him,''' she said. ``He was willing to use these boys for his own gain.''

Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said: ``If further investigation showed the boys were innocent, he would be in agreement with what the attorney general's office decided to do.''

Evans, Seligmann and Finnerty 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 March 2006 team party where she had been hired to perform. Nifong dropped the rape charges in December after the accuser said she was no longer certain she had been penetrated.

Cooper offered no explanation for why the woman told such a story and would not discuss her mental health. However, he said no charges will be brought against her, 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. The Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex-crime cases.

Seligmann thanked his lawyers for sparing him from 30 years in prison for a ``hoax'' and complained that society has lost sight of the presumption of innocence.

``This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice,'' he said.

Finnerty's attorney, Wade Smith, told CBS Thursday that television reporter Ed Bradley's interview with the players on ``60 Minutes'' had helped the world see the three as human beings. Others criticized the media for not pressing Nifong for evidence.

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 under suspicion. The bar 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 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.

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. He declined to say whether he believes Nifong should be disbarred.

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 May.

Former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who resigned under fire and is now lacrosse coach at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., said he was convinced early on that his former players were innocent.

``Two days after this happened, I knew what the truth was,'' he said. ``When you say you believe in somebody, when you say you believe the truth, you stand by them.''