DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University has reached an undisclosed financial settlement with three former lacrosse players falsely accused of rape, while a judge said late Monday he would order the disbarred prosecutor to leave office immediately.
Duke had suspended Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans after they were charged last year with raping a stripper at an off-campus party. The university also canceled the team's season and forced their coach to resign.
"We welcomed their exoneration and deeply regret the difficult year they and their families have had to endure," the school said Monday in a statement. "These young men and their families have been the subject of intense scrutiny that has taken a heavy toll."
The allegations were debunked in April by state prosecutors, who said the players were the innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse" by Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong. He was disbarred Saturday for breaking more than two dozen rules of professional conduct in his handling of the case.
The players' families racked up millions of dollars of legal bills in their defense, and appear likely to file a lawsuit against Nifong.
The players said in a joint statement that they hoped the agreement would "begin to bring the Duke family back together again."
"The events of the last year tore the Duke community apart, and forcibly separated us from the university we love," they said. "We were the victims of a rogue prosecutor concerned only with winning an election, and others determined to railroad three Duke lacrosse players and to diminish the reputation of Duke University."
Earlier Monday, Nifong said he planned to leave office next month in a resignation letter to Gov. Mike Easley and to Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who is overseeing a pending request to remove Nifong from office.
"It is my fervent hope that this action will spare this community the further anguish a removal hearing would entail and will allow the healing process to move forward," Nifong wrote.
But Nifong's July 13 departure date wasn't soon enough for Hudson, who decided late Monday to suspend Nifong from office.
As part of the suspension, Hudson said he would order the sheriff on Tuesday to prevent Nifong from carrying out any duties of the district attorney.
"I have thought about the situation, and this is way I wish to proceed," said Hudson who initially agreed to allow Nifong work until next month.
A disciplinary committee of the North Carolina State Bar concluded Saturday that Nifong had lied to the court, made inflammatory statements about the three indicted players and their teammates, and withheld critical DNA evidence from defense attorneys. After some administrative steps, Nifong will have 30 days to turn in his law license.
Dick Ellis, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said Nifong will still be eligible for his full retirement benefits — a pension and health care — that he accrued while working a state employee for nearly 30 years. But because he served fewer than five years as district attorney, he is not vested in a more lucrative retirement system for judges, prosecutors and the director of the courts office.
There was no word on whom Easley will chose to replace Nifong, who was appointed in 2005. The governor said Monday he would immediately remove Nifong — who has worked in the district attorney's office since 1978 — if he could.
"You are given a lot of power and you can destroy a reputation in moments with just a few words," said Easley, a former prosecutor. "This was much more than a mistake."