RALEIGH, N.C. – Three former Duke University lacrosse players Wednesday were cleared of all charges that they assaulted a stripper during a team party, ending a case that widened the fissures of race, gender and class in North Carolina.
The North Carolina attorney general’s office announced that after a 12-week investigation it was dropping all charges against the trio, including sexual assault and kidnapping, and sharply blamed the local district attorney for a rogue prosecution.
“The result of our review and investigation shows clearly that there is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a televised news conference. “Today we are filing notices of dismissal for all charges. The result is that these cases are over, and no more criminal proceedings will occur.”
The state office took over the case when Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong was accused of ethics violations in connection with the case. Cooper was especially harsh in comments directed toward Nifong.
“We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” Cooper said. “There were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado.”
Reade Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J.; Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., and David Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. But as the case fell apart, Nifong dropped rape charges in December.
The athletes, their lawyers and many relatives spoke at an afternoon news conference.
“It’s been 395 days since this nightmare began. We are as innocent today as we were then,” Evans said. “All of the men of the Duke University lacrosse team have gone to hell and back. Today, the legal system has prevailed.”
The case began the night of March 13, 2006, when Duke’s lacrosse team threw a party.
A 28-year-old black woman who attended nearby North Carolina Central University was hired to perform as a stripper. She claimed she was gang-raped by three white players.
The case had problems from the outset, when DNA testing found no physical evidence. The players insisted that the accusations were lies, and another dancer who had attended the party said she could not corroborate any rape.
As questions about the case continued to grow, Nifong became more stubborn about pursuing charges. At one point, he branded the team as “a bunch of hooligans.”
Critics said he was playing to prospective black voters during a tight re-election campaign in May. Nifong, who was narrowly returned to office, eventually was charged by the North Carolina State Bar with ethics violations. Nifong was accused of making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes. Later, more serious charges of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court and investigators were added.
Nifong still faces a hearing on those charges in June and could be disbarred.