Falsely-accused Duke lacrosse players seek millions, reforms

Updated: September 8, 2007, 9:34 AM ET
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. -- More than a year ago, Dave Evans made his way through throngs of reporters to turn himself in at the Durham County jail as one of three Duke University lacrosse players charged with rape.

On Friday, the prosecutor who wrongly accused those men, Mike Nifong, made that same perp walk.

In a come-full-circle moment, the former Durham County district attorney who unrelentingly led the rape investigation reported to jail to serve a 24-hour sentence for lying to a judge. The crime was just part of the misconduct that allowed the case to linger for months despite a lack of evidence, and that ultimately led to Nifong's disbarment.

"I keep reflecting back to where we were a year ago when we were begging him to look at the truth and look at the facts, and he seemed committed to doing exactly what he pleased," said Jim Cooney, who represented exonerated player Reade Seligmann. "He probably feels like he's in a lake of fire right now. But if he does, he needs to come to the realization that he set that fire."

Nifong arrived about 20 minutes before his 9 a.m. deadline to report to jail, surrounded by about 20 supporters and family members. They formed a protective cluster to walk Nifong into the building, with supporters at the front carrying signs that read, "We believe in your integrity and goodness."

The number of onlookers outside the jail was significantly fewer than greeted Evans after his May 2006 indictment at the height of the case's intensity, but Nifong still found about 20 reporters and a handful of hecklers waiting for him.

"Justice works!" a woman shouted.

"I hope your family gets what you gave those families, you scumbag," a man said loudly.

Nifong, dressed in a white polo shirt and khaki pants, refused to talk to reporters. Durham County Sheriff Worth Hill said Nifong would likely have a cell to himself and won't be allowed to interact with other inmates for safety reasons.

Reade Seligmann's father said his family took no personal satisfaction in Nifong's sentence, but found solace that the justice system worked.

"The bottom line is it shows that there were no winners in this entire fiasco," Phil Seligmann said by phone from his New Jersey home. "That's clear."

Seligmann, Evans and Collin Finnerty were accused of raping a woman who had been hired to strip at a team party in 2006. Nifong pursued the case and won indictments, but the charges were eventually thrown out by state prosecutors who declared the players innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse." In Nifong's contempt case, the judge found that the former district attorney withheld for months DNA evidence that helped exonerate the players.

The three men are now seeking a $30 million settlement and reforms in the legal process, two people close to the case told The Associated Press on Friday. If the terms aren't met, they will sue early next month, the sources said on condition of anonymity because the proposed settlement wasn't complete.

Both sources stressed to the AP that the money must be accompanied by legal reforms, with one saying the roughly $10 million for each family would be paid out over five years.

Katherine Franke, a Columbia University civil rights law professor, said while the players' reputations were damaged in a national setting, the settlement request is beyond normal standards of about $1 million.

"It strikes me as well off the charts from what one would normally get in a case like that," Franke said. "But it's the political nature of the case: How much is it worth to the city to get rid of this case given the outrage?"

Nifong recused himself from the case in January after being charged with ethics violations. He was disbarred in June for more than two dozen violations of the state's rules of professional conduct, including withholding exculpatory DNA evidence and making numerous inflammatory comments about the lacrosse players to the media, and he resigned as district attorney in July.

Last week, Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III found Nifong in contempt for lying to the court during a hearing in the case last September regarding whether DNA evidence had been provided to defense attorneys.

Smith found that Nifong had provided defense attorneys with a DNA testing report that he knew was incomplete despite insisting that he had provided all results. The omitted data contained test results showing that DNA of multiple men, none of whom were lacrosse players, was found on the accuser. A defense attorney eventually deciphered the omitted information amid nearly 2,000 pages of test data.

Smith could have sentenced Nifong to as many as 30 days in jail and a fine as high as $500.

"I keep reflecting back to where we were a year ago when we were begging him to look at the truth and look at the facts, and he seemed committed to doing exactly what he pleased," said Jim Cooney, who represented Reade Seligmann. "He probably feels like he's in a lake of fire right now. But if he does, he needs to come to the realization that he set that fire."

Among those waiting for Nifong on Friday morning was Tom Clute, a junior defenseman on the Duke lacrosse team once vilified by Nifong's repeated public statements that a woman was raped at a March 2006 team party where she was hired as a stripper. Clute walked alongside the group snapping photos with a digital camera as the disgraced ex-prosecutor entered the jail.

"I felt sorry for his family," Clute said, "but it was good to see the whole thing beginning to come to an end."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press