Though five years have passed since North Carolina’s attorney general exonerated three former Duke University lacrosse players of phony rape allegations, the lawsuits they filed against the prosecutor, the city of Durham, its top administrators and law enforcement officers remain open in federal court.
But on Monday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that takes the heft out of much of the former players’ claims. The three-judge panel rejected their claims for damages filed under federal law against the City of Durham and its police department.
The panel allowed the former players to continue with their claims under North Carolina law that Durham officials violated their state constitutional rights. The panel also allowed the three wrongfully accused players to proceed with their state claims that two police investigators – Mark Gottlieb and Benjamin Himan – engaged in malicious prosecution.
David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann filed their claims after being falsely accused of gang-raping a dancer at a 2006 team party.
The case raised questions about Durham’s justice system, eventually leading to the ouster and disbarring of Mike Nifong, the district attorney who led the prosecution.
It also touched on the prickly issues of race, sex and privilege, both in Durham and nationally. The mentally ill accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, who now faces a murder charge on an unrelated case, is black and from a low-income Durham neighborhood. The lacrosse players, for the most part, were largely affluent, white students from outside North Carolina.
Duke University, which canceled the lacrosse season shortly after the accusations emerged, settled out of court with the three exonerated players.
But other members of the team filed two other lawsuits in federal court against Duke, the city of Durham, Nifong and others.
In the 58-page ruling released Monday, the appeals court also threw out all federal claims filed by the team members who were not charged criminally. Though their cases were different from that of the three exonerated players, they claimed to have suffered damages through the course of the investigation. Despite the surviving claims under state law, Patrick Baker, Durham’s city attorney, said he was heartened by the ruling.
“From the city’s perspective, we’re certainly pleased by the 4th Circuit’s decision to relieve the city from the vast majority of the case,” Baker said.
Legal tab: $5 million
Baker said the city has spent $5 million defending claims by the 2006 lacrosse team. Insurance has covered the bulk of the cost, he said.
The players can appeal the court’s decision several ways. They can ask the three-judge panel to take another look at their case or they can seek a review by the full bank of judges.
It was unclear Monday what the next step would be.