Prosecutors dropped all charges Wednesday against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a party, saying the athletes were innocent victims of a “tragic rush to accuse” by an overreaching district attorney.
“There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a damning assessment of Durham County District Mike Nifong’s handling of the sensational case.
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation “led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred.”
“I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to a lot of people,” Cooper said. “I think those people ought to consider doing that.”
Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans 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 team party where she had been hired to perform.
The allegations at first outraged the city, a faded tobacco capital with a long history of tension between its large working-class black population and Duke, an elite private school where most of the students, including the three lacrosse players, are white. The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University.
But that anger largely shifted to Nifong as his evidence against the three fell apart and questions surfaced about the accuser.
The attorney general said Wednesday that the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the woman’s story, no other witness corroborated it, and the woman contradicted herself.
“Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges,” Cooper said.
The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. It later added more serious offenses of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court and bar investigators. He stands trial on those charges in June.
Nifong had accused the team of refusing to cooperate, calling them “a bunch of hooligans,” and promised DNA evidence would finger the guilty.
His case started to erode when no DNA evidence tied any player to the accuser.
Statement from North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper on the Duke University lacrosse rape case.
Good afternoon, everyone.
On Jan. 13 of this year, I accepted the request of the Durham district attorney to take over three Durham cases. At the time, I promised a fresh and thorough review of the facts and a decision on the best way to proceed. I also said that we would have our eyes wide open to the evidence, but that we would have blinders on for all other distractions. We’ve done all of these things.
During the past 12 weeks, our lawyers and investigators have reviewed the remaining allegations of sexual assault and kidnapping that resulted from a party on March 13, 2006, in Durham, N.C.
We have carefully reviewed the evidence collected by the Durham County prosecutor’s office and the Durham Police Department. We have also conducted our own interviews and evidence gathering. Our attorneys and SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) agents have interviewed numerous people who were at the party, DNA and other experts, the Durham County district attorney, Durham police officers, defense attorneys and the accusing witness on several occasions. We have reviewed statements given over the past year, photographs, records and other evidence.
The result of our review and investigation shows clearly that there is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges. Today we are filing notices of dismissal for all charges against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans.
The result is that these cases are over, and no more criminal proceedings will occur.
We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations. Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges.
We approached this case with the understanding that rape and sexual assault victims often have some inconsistencies in their accounts of a traumatic event. However, in this case, the inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house that night.
The prosecuting witness in this case responded to questions and offered information. She did want to move forward with the prosecution.
However, the contradictions in her many versions of what occurred and the conflicts between what she said occurred and other evidence, like photographs and phone records, could not be rectified.
Our investigation shows that:
The eyewitness identification procedures were faulty and unreliable. No DNA confirms the accuser’s story. No other witness confirms her story. Other evidence contradicts her story. She contradicts herself. Next week, we’ll be providing a written summary of the important factual findings and some of the specific contradictions that have led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred.
In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked. 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. Regardless of the reasons this case was pushed forward, the result was wrong. Today, we need to learn from this and keep it from happening again to anybody.
Now, we have good district attorneys in North Carolina who are both tough and fair. And we need these forceful, independent prosecutors to put criminals away and protect the public. But we also need checks and balances to protect the innocent. This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor. What has been learned here is that the internal checks on a criminal chargesworn statements, reasonable grounds, proper suspect photo lineups, accurate and fair discoveryall are critically important.
Therefore, I propose a law that the North Carolina Supreme Court have the authority to remove a case from a prosecutor in limited circumstances. This would give the courts a new tool to deal with a prosecutor who needs to step away from a case where justice demands.
I want to thank everyone in the North Carolina Department of Justice. I want to thank our investigators, our SBI agents and especially attorneys Jim Coman and Mary Winstead for their hard work in this matter.