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All charges against Duke players dropped

4/12/2007

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Nearly a year after calling the rape
accusations he and two Duke lacrosse teammates faced nothing but
"fantastic lies," David Evans again stood before the cameras and
proclaimed his innocence.

This time, there was no room for doubt.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper didn't just dismissed
all the remaining criminal charges against Evans, Reade Seligmann
and Collin Finnerty. He took the extra step of declaring the
players innocent -- the victims of a "tragic rush to accuse" by a
rogue prosecutor who could be disbarred for his actions.

"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a
prosecutor," Cooper said.

The attorney general took over the case in January from Durham
County District Attorney Mike Nifong after the state bar charged
Nifong with ethics violations over his handling of the case. On
Wednesday, Cooper said the state's investigation into a stripper's
claim that she was sexually assaulted at a team party last spring
found nothing to corroborate her story.

The investigation, he said, "led us to the conclusion that no
attack occurred."

The dismissal brought an abrupt end to a yearlong case that
heightened long-standing racial tensions in Durham and ignited a
debate of race, sex and class at the private, elite university. The
woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central
University, a historically black school; all three Duke players are
white.

"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure. We're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed. The facts don't change."
-- David Evans, one of three accused Duke players

In the uproar over the allegations, Duke canceled the rest of
the team's 2006 season, the lacrosse coach resigned under fire and
a schism opened between faculty who supported the athletes and
those who accused them of getting away with loutish frat-boy
behavior for too long.

"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally
today it's coming to a closure," said Evans, his voice breaking at
one point. "We're just as innocent today as we were back then.
Nothing has changed. The facts don't change."

The notice of dismissal prepared by the attorney general's
office for each player declared "this individual is innocent."

Joseph Cheshire, who represented Evans, said defense attorneys
will soon begin work to have their clients' arrest record expunged.
He called Nifong "a man who had not a care in the world about
justice, but only about his personal agenda."

Finnerty's parents, speaking in an interview aired Thursday on
CBS's "The Early Show," said the room broke into cheers when they
heard the attorney general declare the three innocent.

"Many times, I'd say to the lawyers, 'I feel like there's a mad man chasing my son down the street and there's nothing I can do to stop him.' He was willing to use these boys for his own gain."
-- Mary Ellen Finnerty, mother of Collin Finnerty

"He was crying. We were crying, hugging," father Kevin
Finnerty said. "I think it was just such a sensitive moment, it
just blew us away."

The past year had been a nightmare for the families as well as
the three men and their former teammates, Finnerty's mother, Mary
Ellen Finnerty, said.

"Many times, I'd say to the lawyers, 'I feel like there's a mad
man chasing my son down the street and there's nothing I can do to
stop him,' " she said. "He was willing to use these boys for his
own gain."

Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for
comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said: "If further
investigation showed the boys were innocent, he would be in
agreement with what the attorney general's office decided to do."

Evans, Seligmann and Finnerty 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 March 2006 team party where she had been hired to perform.
Nifong dropped the rape charges in December after the accuser said
she was no longer certain she had been penetrated.

Cooper offered no explanation for why the woman told such a
story and would not discuss her mental health. However, he said no
charges will be brought against her, 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," he said.

The accuser's whereabouts were not immediately known. The
Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex-crime
cases.

Seligmann thanked his lawyers for sparing him from 30 years in
prison for a "hoax" and complained that society has lost sight of
the presumption of innocence.

"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world
of injustice," he said.

Finnerty's attorney, Wade Smith, told CBS Thursday that
television reporter Ed Bradley's interview with the players on "60
Minutes" had helped the world see the three as human beings.
Others criticized the media for not pressing Nifong for evidence.

Nifong withdrew from the case in January after the North
Carolina bar charged him with making misleading and inflammatory
comments to the media about the athletes under suspicion. The bar
later added more serious charges of withholding evidence from
defense attorneys and lying to the court.

Among other things, Nifong called the athletes "a bunch of
hooligans" and declared DNA evidence would identify the guilty. He
was also 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.

Portraying Nifong as a "rogue prosecutor," Cooper called for
the passage of a law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme
Court to remove a district attorney where justice demands it. He
declined to say whether he believes Nifong should be disbarred.

Duke suspended Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and
Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., after their arrest. Both were
invited to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Evans,
24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted in
May.

Former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who resigned under
fire and is now lacrosse coach at Bryant University in Smithfield,
R.I., said he was convinced early on that his former players were
innocent.

"Two days after this happened, I knew what the truth was," he
said. "When you say you believe in somebody, when you say you
believe the truth, you stand by them."