Duke Lacrosse Players File Federal Lawsuit Against Nifong, Durham, Police

Three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape filed a federal lawsuit Friday against disgraced prosecutor Mike Nifong, the city of Durham and the police detectives who handled the investigation.

The lawsuit calls the criminal case against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys fees and numerous reforms to the way the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.

The lawsuit was filed about a month after city officials met with lawyers for the families seeking a $30 million settlement and several legal reforms, two sources close to the case have told The Associated Press. The attorneys gave the city a month to respond or face a civil rights lawsuit.

In April, more than a year after a woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party told police she was raped, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the former players innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."

Nifong did not immediately return a message seeking comment left at his home Friday morning. A message left with a Durham city spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

The lawsuit charges the defendants with conspiring to keep alive a pitifully weak case as Nifong faced a tightly contested election in the Democratic primary for district attorney. Nifong was later disbarred for numerous ethics violations, resigned from office and spent a night in jail after a judge held him criminal contempt of court for lying about the DNA evidence.

It names Nifong and 13 other defendants, including former police chief Steven Chalmers, police investigators Benjamin Himan and Mark Gottlieb, and Brian Meehan — the director of DNA Security Inc., which conducted the DNA testing that proved key to unraveling the case. It also names the Meehan's lab as a defendant.

Defendants withheld evidence, intimidated witnesses, made public statements to smear the lacrosse players and used a photo lineup that featured only lacrosse players so that the accuser would name the players as her attackers, the lawsuit said.

Among other reforms, the lacrosse players want an independent committee to publicly review complaints of police misconduct. They also want improved police training and for Meehan and his lab to be banned from providing reports or expert testimony in a court proceeding for a decade.

Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans were indicted by a Durham County grand jury last year on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. From the outset, the players strongly maintained their innocence, and as the case dragged on through the end of 2006, it became clear the charges had no merit.