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Innocent: Duke charges dropped

Former Duke lacrosse players Collin Finnerty, left, and

Former Duke lacrosse players Collin Finnerty, left, and Reade Seligmann, right, sit in court with Seligmann's mom Kathy during a break in Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong's North Carolina State Bar trial in Raleigh, N.C. Nifong faces several ethics charges tied to his handling of the debunked Duke lacrosse rape case. (June 14 2007) Credit: AP

After a harrowing year burdened by accusations that they raped an exotic dancer at an off-campus party, three former Duke University lacrosse players now hope to return to some semblance of a normal life after they were exonerated yesterday on all charges.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's unqualified proclamation that the players are innocent, and his criticism of the decision to prosecute them, produced a joyous response by the players and their families.

Speaking shortly after the attorney general's announcement, Collin Finnerty, 20, and the other two players, Reade Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and David Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., thanked their families and legal teams.

"Today was the day we've all been waiting for," Finnerty said at a news conference in Raleigh. "I'm excited to return to being a college student. I hope to return to the field again to play lacrosse and I can't wait to return to normal life back on Long Island."

"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began, and finally today it's coming to a closure," Evans said at the news conference, his voice breaking.

"We're just as innocent today as we were back then," he said. "Nothing has changed, the facts don't change."

Evans' attorney, Joe Cheshire, said work would soon begin to expunge the trio's arrest record in the case. Defense sources also told CNN that the defense plans to pursue lawsuits against District Attorney Mike Nifong, the original prosecutor.

Cooper said his staff, after an exhaustive three-month review of the case, found virtually nothing to support the dancer's claims that Finnerty and two other players assaulted the dancer at a party last year.

"We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night," Cooper said. "There is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges."

However, Cooper did not address any details of what happened in the house that night.

He characterized Nifong's decision to prosecute as "a tragic rush to accuse." He also suggested that he viewed Nifong as a "rogue prosecutor" whose excesses contrasted with the norm among North Carolina prosecutors who, Cooper said, strive to be tough but fair.

Finnerty, Evans and Seligmann were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the accuser told police she was assaulted at a March 13, 2006, party. The rape charges were later dropped, but the other charges remained until yesterday.

Cooper said that the accuser will not face prosecution in the case, 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."

The accuser could not be reached for comment last night. But Mark Simeon, a local attorney who spoke on behalf of her parents, said "They were disappointed for their daughter. She did want to go forward with" the case.

Newsday has not named the accuser because she claims to be the victim of sexual assault.

The accusations polarized the Duke campus, the city of Durham, and the nation into groups who believed the players had done nothing wrong and those who believed the charges against them were true. Feelings cooled though, after the case against the players crumbled and rape charges were dropped last December.

After a series of revelations that undermined confidence in the case - including repeated changes in the dancer's story and DNA results that did not match the accused players - Nifong stepped aside in January and Cooper's office took over the case.

Nifong, who was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment, faces charges of ethics violation and misconduct in his handling of the case that have jeopardized his law license. Nifong's lawyer, David Freedman, said before Cooper's announcement that Nifong has "complete confidence in the attorney general's office to make the appropriate decision."

As the case unfolded last year, Nifong called the athletes "a bunch of hooligans" and declared DNA evidence would incriminate them. He also was 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.

The attorney general yesterday 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," Cooper said.

In the uproar over the allegations, Duke canceled the rest of the team's 2006 season, and the lacrosse coach resigned under fire.

Duke suspended Seligmann and Finnerty after their arrest, then invited both to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Evans graduated the day before he was indicted.

For some at Duke, the possibility of dropped charges left as many questions as answers - and a feeling that the full truth of what happened last March in the house on North Buchanan Boulevard may never be known, in part because the investigation was mishandled.

"Since we haven't gone through a normal legal process, we don't know what really happened," said Duke biology professor Sheryl Broverman. "The fact the charges were dropped doesn't mean nothing happened. It just means information wasn't collected appropriately enough to go forward [CORRECTION: Comments by Duke University professor Sheryl Broverman about the lacrosse case in a story Thursday were made before North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced he had cleared the three Duke players of all charges. The time element was omitted. PG. A17 ALL 4/18/07]."

The reaction was mixed in the accuser's neighborhood, in South Central Durham.

"I do believe something happened but we don't know," said a neighbor, Lafardella David, 68, a retired chef. "No one will ever know.

"Money is involved," he said in a reference to the status of the families of the accused. "If you got the money you can't do no wrong."

Reginald Brown, 19, disagreed. "She lied basically," he said of the accuser. "She was in the wrong. DNA don't lie."

The accuser's mother, who answered the door at the family home, declined to comment on the advice of her lawyer.

Yesterday afternoon, the three Duke players and their lawyers spoke at a Raleigh hotel news conference attended by 31 members of the Duke men's and women's lacrosse teams. With families surrounding them, the three hugged and thanked those who had supported them while excoriating those who had not.

Collin Finnerty's father, Kevin, said Cooper's denunciation of the case, and his unqualified statement that the players are innocent, went beyond the fondest hopes of their families.

"It gives them a chance to live their lives and go forward," the elder Finnerty said. "We were hoping for that, we didn't know whether to expect that, but we got it."

The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this story.

WHAT THEY FACE NEXT

THE DEFENDANTS

Collin Finnerty of Garden City has a part-time job as an assistant lacrosse coach for Chaminade High School in Mineola. Finnerty, 20, has attended Hofstra University since his suspension from Duke. He recently served six months probation for a 2005 assault in Washington, D.C. He said yesterday that he looks forward to "a normal life back on Long Island," playing lacrosse and attending college, and to "use my experience to prevent this from ever happening again to anyone."

 

Reade Seligmann, 21, an Essex Fells, N.J., resident, was recruited to Brown University in Providence, R.I., to play lacrosse, but has not decided if he will go there. He said yesterday that he looks forward to returning to school in the fall.

 

David Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., former co-captain of the Duke team, graduated from Duke in May. His attorney said yesterday that Evans and the other players will "sit down and assess their lives" and have not decided whether they will sue any parties in the case.

THE DA

Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong is only a few months into a four-year term and is facing several charges of ethics violations levied by the state bar association. If he's found guilty after a hearing in June, the bar association could impose disciplinary measures, including disbarment.

THE ACCUSER

Despite the dismissal of criminal charges, the accusing witness, 28, a mother from south central Durham County, could sue the lacrosse players for assault and battery, although experts say it is unlikely. The accuser also could have faced charges for filing a false police statement but North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said she won't be charged.

KEY FINDINGS

from N. Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper

Identification procedures in the Durham DA's probe were unreliable.

No DNA supported the stripper's story.

No witness corroborated it.

The woman contradicted herself.

Inconsistencies existed between the evidence and the accuser's various statements.

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