RALEIGH, N.C. – Duke University has invited two of the lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper during an off-campus party to return to school as students in good standing, defense attorneys said Wednesday.
Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann had been barred from attending class during the fall semester while their case made its way through court. The third player charged in the case, Dave Evans, graduated in May, the day before he was charged with rape for the alleged March incident.
Rape charges against all three players were dropped last month, after the accuser said she could no longer remember some details about the case. Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong is still charging the three players with sexual offense and kidnapping.
"As circumstances have evolved in this extraordinary case, we have attempted to balance recognition of the gravity of legal charges with the presumption of your innocence," Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs said in a letter to Seligmann dated Tuesday.
"Now with the approach of a new term, we believe that circumstances warrant that we strike this balance differently. At this point, continued extension of the administrative leave would do unwarranted harm to your educational progress."
Duke President Richard Brodhead issued a statement Wednesday saying: "We have decided that the right and fair thing to do is to welcome back Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty to resume their studies at Duke for the spring semester. Although the students still face serious charges and larger issues require Duke's collective attention, the circumstances in this case have changed substantially, and it is appropriate that the students have an opportunity to continue their education."
Finnerty's attorney, Wade Smith, said his client was invited back at Duke for the spring semester but would not say for sure whether he would accept the offer.
"We feel this is a very important moment in Duke's institutional history, certainly a very important moment in our client's life and that this announcement speaks to Duke's integrity as an institution, to its mission and to its belief in Collin Finnerty's innocence," Smith told reporters. "Collin's family is very, very pleased about this ... Collin looks forward to continuing his education and to rejoining the lacrosse team and continuing his career as a student and an athlete."
Since being suspended from Duke, Smith said Finnerty has been working with Tuesday's Children, which serves children of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He's also been taking classes at Hofstra University, and earned an 'A' in calculus last semester.
"None of us on his defense team can even spell 'calculus,'" Smith joked.
He said he believes Finnerty would see Duke's offer as "some vindication" for the ordeal.
As for whether Seligmann would accept the offer and return to school, his attorney, James P. Cooney III, said: "He's considering his options."
Nifong did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
The decision to allow Finnerty and Seligmann to return to school comes a day after Nifong was sworn in to serve a four-year term following his election victories in the Democratic primary in May and the November general election. Defense lawyers have said Nifong pressed forward in the divisive case for political gain.
Nifong has been criticized for weaknesses in the case, including a lack of DNA evidence, an apparent alibi for Seligmann and the shaky credibility of the 28-year-old accuser. After meeting with the accuser for the first time recently — months after charging the lacrosse players — Nifong dropped the rape charges after the accuser said she was no longer certain she had been penetrated vaginally by a penis, a necessary element of rape charges in North Carolina.
Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans have maintained their innocence, with Evans calling the charges "fantastic lies" the day he was indicted in May. Their lawyers have called on Nifong to drop the remaining charges.
The case led to the resignation of longtime coach Mike Pressler and the university's decision to cancel the remainder of the season for the highly ranked lacrosse team. But in recent weeks, Brodhead has criticized Nifong's handling of the case.
"By now it should be plain to any person who has any objectivity that the charges against Reade are transparently false," the Seligmann family said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Reade is absolutely innocent and we will continue to fight this injustice."
The case faces its next hurdle at a hearing Feb. 5 when the defense is expected to ask a judge to throw out results of a photo lineup in which the accuser identified the players. Without her identification, experts say, Nifong may have to drop the other charges.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.