When Collin Finnerty accepted his college diploma last week at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, he wore beneath his graduation gown a silver medallion of St. Raymond - the patron saint of the falsely accused.
For Finnerty, his graduation was a triumphant moment and one he could scarcely imagine four years ago when he and two other Duke University lacrosse players were arrested on charges they raped a stripper at an off-campus party. The case drew headlines around the world, and the three young men were painted as the picture of privileged college students flouting the law. When the case was thrown out and the charges proved to be false, they were back in the spotlight as horrific examples of the wrongly accused.
Last week, Finnerty gladly wore the medallion - a gift from the family of another accused man, David Evans, who distributed similar medals to all the families and urged them to wear them and to pray - as a reminder of what he endured. Finnerty said he is no longer angry over what he went through, and he realizes he is not the same person today as he was then.
"I learned a lot of life lessons at an earlier age than some people would," said Finnerty, 23, in an interview in his family's Garden City home.
His new awareness that lives can be destroyed in a moment, that power can be abused and that the system doesn't always work led Finnerty to the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to helping the wrongly convicted. He has met falsely convicted men from far different backgrounds than his own who spent decades in prison. Some were on death row. He said he and the other accused players have discussed doing their own work to help the falsely accused.
After leaving Duke and transferring to Loyola, Finnerty changed his major from history to communications. He said he experienced firsthand the power of the media - which he feels demonized him when the accusations first surfaced but later helped bring the truth to light. He interned at a television station and may seek work in the media field.
The ordeal also brought his tight-knit family even closer.
"We all kind of leaned on each other," he said. "It wasn't just tough on me, it was tough for the whole family to have to deal with that."
After his arrest, his name blared from the headlines of newspapers; his face stared down at him from television screens. He watched his identity transform from student to criminal. He retreated into a small circle of family and close friends, spending time at his grandmother's house near his parents' home and a vacation house on the East End to avoid reporters camped out in Garden City. Lawyers advised them to stay silent.
"We definitely wanted to say something to calm everyone down and let people know who we really were," he said. "My mom can attest to it - you wanted to scream at people. That was pretty hard to deal with."
For his parents, Kevin and Mary Ellen Finnerty, watching their son go through that was agony.
"The charges were extremely serious, and we viewed it as a life and death situation, and it was beyond painful. Our life is all about family, and it was brutal," Kevin Finnerty said. "As parents, we have always been very concerned about the amount of scar tissue that would remain. It was never obvious to us which way he would go, given the duress of the situation, which way anybody would go after going through something so severe. We're thrilled to see that Collin has succeeded. We do believe he will be a better man in the long run having survived this."
Eager to move on
Finnerty left Duke immediately after the arrest and spent the next year focusing on his criminal case and taking classes at Hofstra University. Once he and the others were completely exonerated, he was eager to resume his education. He flourished at Loyola, where he became co-captain of the lacrosse team, and recently won the school's John R. Moller award for achievement in academics, athletics and character.
"It is a huge honor. It is a very significant award, and it reflects the way he fit into the team," said the Rev. Brian Linnane, president of Loyola. "It's unimaginable to be accused the way he was, and the way he moved beyond that with great grace and became a leader, it says a lot about him and his family."
Finnerty said his arrest at Duke didn't do much to change his lifestyle at college. But he was conscious that even the slightest infraction could become national news. At Loyola, a Jesuit college of 3,700 undergraduates, he assumed everyone knew his background.
"I guess I'm pretty recognizable - I was always in the press, and I'm pretty tall," said Finnerty, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 210 pounds. "People would stop and say, 'I'm sorry for what you went through, I'm glad to see how it ended up, I always supported you, I'm praying for the best outcome.' That would happen daily."
Through it all, his supporters said, Finnerty somehow managed to avoid becoming bitter.
"The biggest temptation has been to become angry, which would have been justified. . . . Instead he was moved, his family was moved, toward reconciliation," said the Rev. James Williams, the president of Chaminade High School, from which Finnerty graduated in 2004. School officials gave him a job there as an assistant lacrosse coach as a sign of their confidence in his character.
"Despite the pain [the accuser] and others were causing, while they were still upset with her they knew she came from a difficult and troubled background and they had compassion for her. . . . And the anger never won."
Finnerty, who is now job-searching, said that although his ordeal will always be a part of who he is, he has worked hard to keep it from defining him.
"I think moving on from college will help me move past it and no longer be the 'former Duke lacrosse player' they talk about on TV," he said.
Key dates in the case
March 13, 2006
Co-captains of the Duke University lacrosse team throw a party at an off-campus house, hiring two exotic dancers for a reported $800.
April 18, 2006
Based on the accusations of a dancer at the party, Collin Finnerty, of Garden City, and Reade Seligmann, of Essex Fells, N.J., are arrested and charged with rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. They are released on $400,000 bond and suspended from the university. Player David Evans is later arrested. All three deny any involvement with the woman, and all three plead not guilty.
Dec. 13, 2006
Defense lawyers say that prosecutors had improperly withheld exonerating evidence: There was no DNA link to any of the players, but DNA from other males was found in the accuser's body and on her underwear.
Prosecutor Michael Nifong drops rape charges against the three, but other charges of kidnapping and sexual offense remain. Soon after, a Washington, D.C., judge clears Finnerty of a misdemeanor simple assault conviction stemming from an incident outside a Georgetown bar in which he was accused of taunting another man. The conviction was vacated and Finnerty's record cleared.
April 11, 2007
June 18, 2007
Duke University announces a financial settlement, for an undisclosed amount, with each of the three exonerated players.
Sept. 7, 2007
Disbarred prosecutor Nifong reports to the Durham County Jail to serve a 1-day sentence on a contempt conviction.
Other key players
Mike Pressler, forced out as Duke men's lacrosse coach during the scandal
Now in Smithfield, R.I., he is the head coach of the Bryant University Bulldogs men's lacrosse team. After building Duke University into a lacrosse powerhouse, he's doing the same at Division I Bryant. Pressler, who settled a lawsuit with Duke over his firing, co-wrote a book in 2007, entitled "It's Not About the Truth." Pressler and co-author Don Yaeger say Duke officials failed to support the players publicly and were more concerned about the university's image. Reached on Friday, Pressler said of the case: "Those boys suffered. I hope no other team in any sport will have to go through that again."
Evans, from Bethesda, Md., graduated from Duke in 2006. According to Pressler, a friend of the Evans family, he is working in finance for a company in New York City. Evans did not return a call seeking comment.
Reade Seligmann, 23, exonerated Duke lacrosse player
Seligmann, of Essex Fells, N.J. left Duke for Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he played lacrosse and graduated this spring. He plans to go to law school, according to Pressler. In December 2008, Seligmann was awarded the Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association's Humanitarian Award, recognizing his work with the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. Inspired by his efforts, the Brown lacrosse team raised money to support investigations of several cases. Seligmann did not return a call seeking comment.
Mangum, 31, of Durham, has three children. She was a student at North Carolina Central University at the time of the incident in 2006. In October 2008, Mangum co-authored a book, "The Last Dance for Grace: The Crystal Mangum Story." She was released May 18 from Durham County Jail on $100,000 bond on an arson charge. Mangum did not respond to a telephone request for comment left on voicemail.
Michael Nifong, disbarred former Durham County prosecutor
Still living in north Durham with his wife, Cy Gurney. His wife said Friday that Nifong does not speak to the media. After the case Nifong was disbarred, spent a night in jail on a contempt conviction and declared bankruptcy. After Nifong's wife was told Newsday was calling about Collin Finnerty's graduation and homecoming, she said, "I think that's wonderful. I can't speak for my husband, and I wasn't involved in the case, but I think that sounds like a great story. I believe that people should go forward."
James Craven III of Durham, Nifong's lawyer in a civil rights case filed by the three players that is pending in North Carolina, would not comment about his client or the suit. It names dozens of other defendants, including the city of Durham and its police department.
- JOSEPH MALLIA