Players could face 16 to 20 years if convicted

Updated: March 31, 2006, 10:43 PM ET news services

Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, lead investigator in the alleged rape case involving the Duke men's lacrosse team, said Thursday that he expects to file charges including first-degree forcible rape, first-degree kidnapping, and first-degree sexual offense, if the case can be made based on the gathered evidence.

A conviction on those charges could result in a minimum prison sentence of 16 to 20 years. Nifong's office is investigating allegations made by an exotic dancer who was hired to perform at a private team party on March 13.

"Under North Carolina law, the only felony more serious than that is first-degree murder," Nifong told ESPN's George Smith. "These crimes are actually punishable at a higher level than second-degree murder."

Also Thursday, lawyers for the lacrosse players said that police and an outraged community will owe the team an apology after DNA tests are completed -- tests they said will prove no one on the team raped an exotic dancer.

Four attorneys representing nearly all of the 46 players forced to give samples protested what they said was a presumption that their clients attacked the dancer or kept quiet about what happened.

No one has been charged.

"We believe that the DNA will show that this is not true. We believe that a full and complete and fair investigation will show that it is not true," lawyer Joe Cheshire said.

Investigators are still collecting evidence, but Nifong has said in recent days he already believes a crime occurred.

"If it's not the way it's been reported, then why are they so unwilling to tell us what, in their words, did take place that night?" Nifong told Smith on Thursday. "And one would wonder why one needs an attorney if one was not charged and had not done anything wrong."

If the state crime lab's DNA analysis proves inconclusive or doesn't provide a match for any of the athletes, Nifong has said he'll have other evidence.

"If the only thing that we ever have in this case is DNA, then we wouldn't have a case," Nifong said Wednesday.

According to a search warrant served at the lacrosse players' home, investigators were looking for DNA evidence, pieces of blue bathroom carpet, cameras or videotapes that could contain photos or footage from the party, and even broken artificial nails from the accuser.

According to the application required for the court order seeking DNA samples from the team, at least one of those pieces of evidence was found.

"The victim's four red polished fingernails were recovered inside the residence consistent to [the accuser's] version of the attack. She claimed she was clawing at one of the suspect's arms in an attempt to breath [sic] while being strangled. During that time the nails broke off," the police statement said.

Earlier this week, university president Richard Brodhead suspended the highly ranked team from play until the school learns more about the accusations. But Cheshire said Nifong and police have created a mob mentality that has tainted the men "before the evidence has all come out in a way that they will never recover."

Nifong's office did not return calls from The Associated Press on Thursday seeking a response to that criticism.

English professor Melissa Malouf said she is one of those prepared for the DNA tests to prove inconclusive.

"I don't think the DNA is the case," she said after speaking at an outdoor protest near Brodhead's office. "Guys can wear condoms."

According to the court order application, a nurse trained to treat rape victims and a physician who treated the woman said they witnessed symptoms consistent with sexual assault. The document also includes details of a search of the house where the woman said she was raped for about a half-hour.

On Thursday, Nifong told ESPN that on the night in question, the two women were paid $400 each to perform at what they thought would be a bachelor party for about five people. The women met for the first time that night, and when they arrived at the house, there were more than 40 young men inside. The accuser told investigators the men became aggressive and loud.

Officers who searched the house later recovered the woman's makeup bag, cell phone and a stack of $20 bills consistent with the woman's statement that $400 in cash was taken from her purse after the attack, the police statement said.

Police have also searched a second home occupied by lacrosse team members, but documents describing the location or what investigators found have been sealed by court order, prosecutors and police said.

The three lacrosse team members who lived at the house where the party and alleged attack occurred willingly made statements to police after the woman's complaint, Nifong said. They said "that all the attendees were their fellow Duke lacrosse team members," the police statement said.

Prosecutors asked the entire team to contribute DNA samples. When some declined on the advice of attorneys they hired, Nifong said he sought the court order for samples from all but the team's lone black member. The woman, a black student at nearby North Carolina Central, has said her attackers were white.

The case has prompted daily protests since Saturday, including a small student rally Thursday morning, intensifying the undercurrents of privilege and race in a blue-collar city of 200,000 that is 44 percent black while home to one of the nation's elite universities.

"I guess one of the best ways to describe this is we have the potential for a perfect storm," North Carolina Central chancellor James Ammons said. "You have all of these issues that we're going to have to discuss."

Ammons met Thursday with Brodhead, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and several of the city's black leaders to discuss the case.

Brodhead invited about a dozen people to the meeting at Duke because "he wanted to feel the pulse of the community and he wanted our help in sharing information and our thoughts to help Duke deal with this situation," Ammons said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.