All sexual assault, kidnapping and other charges have been dropped against the three Duke University lacrosse players indicted for raping an exotic dancer, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced Wednesday.
"The result of our review and investigation shows clearly that there is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges," Cooper said. "Today we are filing notices of dismissal for all charges."
He added: "We believe these cases were a result of a tragic rush to accuse and failure to verify serious allegations. Based on these significant inconsistencies of evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges."
Cooper said not only are the players innocent of the charges they faced, but there is "no credible evidence that an attack occurred at that house on that night."
"All evidence contradicts her story. She contradicts herself," he said of the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum.
The indicted players, Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans and Collin Finnerty, were all in Raleigh on Wednesday to watch the televised news conference from an undisclosed location. An attorney for one of the players told FOX News they were only told beforehand that the case was going to be dismissed — but not how powerful Cooper's declaration of their innocence would be. The attorneys had two different statements prepared just in case.
It's been "an amazingly difficult few days, an amazingly difficult year," defense attorney Joe Cheshire said during a later press conference, adding that the case was full of "great, fantastic lies."
When Evans took the podium, he said the lacrosse team has "gone to hell and back."
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began and finally the day has come for closure," he said. "We are just as innocent today as we were back then ... we have never wavered in our story.
"It's painful to remember what we went through in those first days and it's just a testament to all our characters that we never lashed out, we stayed strong."
Finnerty thanked his friends, family and the lacrosse team for their support.
"It's been a very long and emotional year for me and all of us … knowing I had the truth on my side was really the most comforting thing," Finnerty said. "Today's that day we've all been waiting for ... the truth finally did prevail, as everyone said it would."
Seligmann called the entire experience a "dark cloud of justice," saying, "Today marks the end of a yearlong nightmare that has been emotionally devastating for all of our families."
The players also acknowledged that their families had the monetary means to afford a defense that ultimately proved their innocence, and said prosecutors and police need to be kept in check to prevent similar "railroading" of those less well off.
"The Duke lacrosse case shows has shown society has lost sight of the most fundamental principles of our justice system," Seligmann said, referring to the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
He also lashed out at the media for its "hurtful words" and "outrageous lies."
"Truth is the best vindication against slander," Seligmann said, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
Evans also blasted the media and those who compared the lacrosse players to Hitler, an analogy he said was one of many made in the days after the allegations surfaced.
"My family and I can sleep at night knowing I did everything I was supposed to do. I never lied … and I can walk with my head held high and I can sleep at night knowing I couldn't have done anything else to prove my innocence."
'Rogue' Prosecutor Nifong Bashed
The players and Cooper blasted District Attorney Mike Nifong — who originally indicted the players for rape — for overstepping his power as a district attorney, saying the "rogue" prosecutor had "pushed ahead unchecked" in this case.
"There were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," Cooper said. "This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor. What has been learned here is the internal checks on a criminal charge — sworn statements, criminal grounds, proper suspect photo lineups, accurate discovery — all are critically important."
The three faced charges of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree forcible sexual offense after Mangum, one of two dancers hired to perform for the players, claimed she had been violently raped in a bathroom by three players at an off-campus lacrosse party on March 13, 2006.
But after changes in the accuser's story and a lack of DNA evidence conclusively pointing to the three players, the rape charges were dropped in December. Nifong recused himself from the case on Jan. 13, and Cooper's office took over. Nifong was charged by the state bar with violating several rules of professional conduct.
The allegations at first outraged the Raleigh/Durham community — Mangum is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University; all three Duke players are white. But that anger largely shifted to Nifong as his evidence against the three fell apart and questions surfaced about the credibility of the accuser.
"Fresh eyes would have ended this case before it began," said Larry Pozner, a defense attorney for 33 years and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "This is a travesty. This is a tragedy for the woman and the team and the individual defendants."
All three former players have steadfastly maintained their innocence, with Evans early on declaring to the press that the allegations were "fantastic lies."
Members of Mangum's family told FOX News that she is "almost relieved" the case is over. Family members had earlier told FOX News that she has wanted the case to end for some time, especially since she expected charges to be lessened — if not dropped completely — since Nifong removed himself from the case.
The family told FOX News that they're poor and black, whereas the players and their families are "rich and white," and that the attorney general's office has looked upon the players as "golden boys."
Friends of the boys accused said they were thrilled the charges have been dropped.
"I think today's exciting for a lot of reasons," Taylor Price, a friend of Finnerty and Seligmann's, told FOX News. "This boundary that's been suffocating my friends for the last two years is finally going to be lifted. I'm excited to see where these kids are going to go the rest of their lives … I know they're going to do great things."
The families of Finnerty, Evans and Seligmann may be considering a civil lawsuit against either the city or the state, if the charges are dropped completely, sources close to the case told FOX News.
Cooper said his office considered pressing charges against the accuser, but decided not to in the end.
"Our investigators looked at the records, and we think she may have believed the stories she was telling," Cooper said. "We believe it's in the best interest of justice not to bring charges."
Cooper's office next week will release the results of its investigation. He also proposed a state law that would give the North Carolina Supreme Court the power to remove a prosecutor from a case in limited circumstances.
"The result [of the Duke case] was wrong," Cooper said. "Today we need to learn from this and keep this from happening again to anybody."
Nifong is already in hot water with the state bar. He is accused of withholding potentially exculpatory DNA evidence from the defense and lying to both the court and bar investigators. He faces a June trial before the bar and could be disbarred if convicted.
"Since he recused himself in January and turned the case over to the attorney general's office, he has had no involvement in the investigation," said David Freedman, Nifong's lawyer. "At the time he turned the case over — and now — he has had complete confidence in the attorney general's office to make the appropriate decision."
A Trail of Fumbles
The lack of DNA evidence and the alleged withholding of evidence by Nifong are just some of the problems cited in the Duke case.
No DNA evidence ever proved any member of the lacrosse team raped the Mangum. The defense also learned that a series of tests Nifong ordered from a private lab found genetic material from several men on the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any Duke lacrosse player. That evidence wasn't shared with the defense until late last year.
The second dancer at the party, Kim Roberts, called Mangum's rape allegations "a crock" but had said she thought something did happen in the bathroom that night.
"I think she was looking forward to the trial so she could see for herself what happened," Roberts' lawyer, Mark Simeon, told FOX News on Thursday. "Something was wrong. Something happened in that house and she was looking forward to finding out, along with everyone else."
Seligmann produced ATM and fast-food receipts, cell phone records and other evidence that suggested he was not at the party when the rape supposedly took place.
Defense attorneys attacked a key photo lineup — suggested by Nifong — that they said violated police procedures because it used only pictures of lacrosse players and contained no fillers, even though investigators knew other men attended the party.
They hammered on Mangum's credibility by noting inconsistencies in her story. They also pointed to a decade-old claim she was gang-raped never led to an arrest and a December revelation that she was pregnant.
Durham Mayor William Bell told FOX News that the city will deal with the decision to drop charges and its aftermath.
"We've said all along it's a judicial matter and that's where it should lie," Bell said. "I'm comfortable that whatever decision is made, we'll accept it and Durham will move on."
But Bell and others said the idea that racial tensions in Durham were inflamed by the allegations has been exaggerated by the media.
"I think the race issue has been a bit overblown as far as Durham is concerned," Simeon said. "Durham is a great town, it's been a melting pot for a lot of people for a long time. It's a strong city."
While Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted in May, Duke temporarily suspended sophomores Finnerty and Seligmann in the wake of their arrest. Finnerty, 20, was also convicted in July in an unrelated assault case in Washington, D.C., and sentenced to six months of probation.
Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., and Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., were both invited to return to campus, but neither has accepted. John Danowski, the former coach at Hofstra who took over the Duke program last summer, has also said that both are welcome to continue their lacrosse careers with the Blue Devils. Danowski moved the team's afternoon practice to Wednesday night so his players could attend their teammates' press conference.
Former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who was forced out amid the scandal, said he is proud of the players for sticking together as the media, pundits and some in the community bashed their character, as well as the character of other members of the team. The team was characterized as a group known in the community for having wild parties and disturbing their neighbors on a regular basis, among other things.
"You've got 50 people believing one truth and the world believing another ... we're all alone out there wondering how we're going to get through it, and to the credit to those players, they got through it," Pressler said. "You sign on and you finish and they did. Today's their day, and that's where my pride comes from."
When asked by reporters if the players deserve an apology from anyone, Pressler said: "We said we were sorry all along ... I think the ones who took it the hardest are certainly those 47 young men. I think you're asking a very obvious question and I think there's an obvious answer."
FOX News' Megyn Kelly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.