RALEIGH, N.C. – With spring classes resuming, much has changed in the criminal case against three Duke University lacrosse players since students and faculty left for winter break last month.
Rape charges against the players were dropped after the woman who said she was attacked at a team party last March wavered on some key details.
University officials last week invited two of the players to return to the Durham campus as students in good standing when classes resume Wednesday after winter break. Officials noted that circumstances had changed and suggested that more time off would harm their educational progress.
In a letter to the Duke community, the university's president, Richard Brodhead, explained administrators' reasons for inviting Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann to return.
A third player charged, Dave Evans, graduated in May a day before he was charged.
All three men still face charges of sexual offense and kidnapping.
"There are still serious charges, and I don't think anybody thinks there was reason to celebrate" when the rape charges were dropped, lacrosse coach John Danowski said Tuesday. "It was certainly a step in the right direction, toward the truth."
Danowski, hired to replace former head coach Mike Pressler, who resigned after the rape accusations, said his and his team's thoughts and prayers were still with the accused players.
Neither Finnerty nor Seligmann had decided yet whether to return to Duke, James P. Cooney III, an attorney for Seligmann, said Tuesday. He said they could choose to return to the school next fall, or later this semester.
Brodhead has criticized District Attorney Mike Nifong since the charges were dismissed, and he continued that criticism in his letter.
"If this case has taught us anything, it is our need for a legal process based in fairness, the rule of evidence, and withholding judgment until the truth is established," Brodhead wrote.
Some students and faculty said they weren't surprised by the university's decision to allow the two players to continue their studies.
"It was just a logical thing to do," Duke Student Government President Elliott Wolf said, adding that he thinks the criminal case has been publicly discredited.
Paul Haagen, chairman of the university faculty's Academic Council, said he thinks Brodhead's letter will get an overwhelmingly positive response.
"I think there is an increasing sense that the criminal case doesn't have legs," said Haagen, a professor in the law school.
But Haagen said many faculty members and students remain concerned over the larger issues highlighted by the team party in March. The stripper who made the accusations is a black single mother while all but one lacrosse player is white, prompting public discussions about racism and sexism.
"For some people, I think they're afraid that as the criminal case appears to have less and less strength to it, that other set of issues will get lost and confused," Haagen said. "We're going to keep moving forward (on those issues) in an intelligent, thoughtful way. That doesn't mean that you hold a couple of kids hostage."
Meanwhile, it doesn't appear the lacrosse case had a serious effect on the number of high school students applying to Duke University.
Nearly 18,500 students applied for 1,665 places for this fall — second only to last year's record of 19,387, officials announced Tuesday.
"I was less certain about where exactly we'd end up this year" given the circumstances, said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions. "I think that the change this year is very much within the context of what we see from year to year."
Wolf, the student president, said he thinks students beginning the spring semester have other things to think about than the case.
"Of course the students are thinking about it because it's so close to us, but at the same time we all have lives," he said. "Neither the university nor the students have any control over the situation."