RALEIGH — Three former Duke lacrosse players are innocent of the charges they've battled for a year, the state attorney general said Wednesday, but Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong is guilty of "a rush to accuse."
As Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed sexual assault and kidnapping charges against Dave Evans, 24, Reade Seligmann, 21, and Collin Finnerty, 20, on Wednesday, he sharply criticized Nifong's handling of a case that put the accused men, Durham and Duke University under a harsh spotlight.
"We believe that these cases were the tragic result of a rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," Cooper said. "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's declaration that the three were innocent -- a word prosecutors rarely use -- brought a long-awaited freedom for men who lived the past year under the threat of decades in prison.
The exonerated players spoke at a news conference at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Raleigh, where supporters' applause punctuated their statements.
"Innocent people can be charged with a crime," Evans said. "Today, the legal system has prevailed."
The hourlong news conference, televised nationally, had unusual and dramatic moments where college athletes called for grand jury reforms and defense lawyers lectured assembled reporters for what they said was a rush to judgment a year ago.
"This case is a study of what is and can be wrong with our justice system," said Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh lawyer representing Evans. "The Duke lacrosse case was prosecuted by a man who had not a care in the world about justice, but only himself and his personal agenda."
It was hours after a March 13, 2006, spring break party that Crystal Gail Mangum, an escort service dancer, reported being gang-raped at the home that three lacrosse team captains shared at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd., across the street from Duke's East Campus.
Her story changed with every telling, even during interviews in recent weeks with Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, the special prosecutors whom Cooper assigned to the case in mid-January.
"We approached this case with the understanding that rape and sexual assault victims often have some inconsistencies in their accounts of a traumatic event," Cooper said. "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."
Cooper said his office did not plan to pursue charges against Mangum.
Medical records under seal provided prosecutors insight into the accuser. The prosecutors who talked with Mangum during the past three months think that she might believe her many different versions of that night, Cooper said.
Mangum could not be reached for comment, but Mark Simeon, a Durham lawyer, spoke on behalf of her parents.
"They were disappointed for their daughter," Simeon said. "She did want to go forward with it."
The case unleashed cascades of anger -- initially at the lacrosse team, then at the accuser and later at Nifong, who sparked protests and marches with his insistence that a racially motivated gang-rape occurred.
The allegations emerged at a time when residents of neighborhoods near the Duke campus were fed up with rowdy students and late-night parties. In its early weeks, the case was often held up as a symbol of out-of-control, privileged college athletes.
As details emerged about problems with the accuser's story and flaws in the investigation, the case evolved into a symbol of prosecutors run amok and a justice system gone awry.
"In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked," Cooper said. "There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado."
Nifong, in Winston-Salem on Wednesday with lawyers representing him in his fight to save his law license, could not be reached for comment.
The State Bar, in an unprecedented move, forced Nifong off the case when it filed ethical and professional misconduct charges against him in December. Nifong ceded control of the case to Cooper's office in January.
David Freedman, one of the lawyers representing Nifong, said dismissal of the cases would not affect how they attack the bar charges.
"He turned the case over to the Attorney General's Office having total respect and trust in their judgment," Freedman said.
The findings of the special prosecutors' investigation will be available early next week, Cooper said. He would not comment on the bar's charges against Nifong.
Neither would Seligmann's attorney, Jim Cooney: "I want to give him what he denied Reade -- a fair trial."
Nifong is scheduled to go before the State Bar on Friday to argue for dismissal of perhaps the most serious charge against him -- that he withheld DNA evidence favorable to the accused and then lied about it to judges and the Bar.
Nifong's attorneys have said he did not intentionally withhold the evidence and did not mean to create pretrial prejudice when he gave numerous interviews. In a letter to the bar, Nifong said he feared the organization was "looking for a prosecutor" to punish for the misdeeds of others whose misconduct had recently come to light.
Cheshire, however, said Wednesday that Nifong's acts "tore his own city apart in a racial, class divide. What this man reaped is unconscionable. He has had the audacity to say he has done nothing wrong."
Cooper proposed a change in state law that would provide legal avenues to remove rogue prosecutors.
James Coleman, a Duke law professor who has been critical of Nifong's handling of the case from the start, said he thought apologies were in order.
"There are a lot of victims here," Coleman said. "The university is one. The city's one. The North Carolina criminal justice system is one. At least to some degree, this helps the state to overcome the damage that Nifong did. ...
"I think the city and police have to make clear that this was a wrong. What won't help is if people try to defend what they did. What they have to do is admit this was a wrong and apologize for it."
Coleman and other law professors say they hope the interest the case generated about flaws in the justice system will not wane with dismissal of the charges.
"There are really two lessons that people can take out of this," said Rich Rosen, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor. "One is to have a healthy degree of skepticism about our criminal justice system. The other is, 'You better not mess with the wrong people,' as the mother of one of the defendants said. If that's the message, what does that say about our criminal justice system?"
Cooney, Seligmann's attorney, called the day his client left the shadow of prosecution "bittersweet."
"We're all delighted the justice system worked," he said. "But the reason it is bittersweet is because it never should have misfired at first."
(Staff writers Michael Biesecker, Joseph Neff, Benjamin Niolet, Matthew Eisley, Matt Dees, Samiha Khanna, Jim Wise, Eric Ferreri and Stanley B. Chambers Jr. contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.