North Carolina Attorney General: Duke Lacrosse Players Victims of 'Tragic Rush to Accuse'
A year after they were indicted for a rape that investigators now say never happened, three Duke University lacrosse players are once again proclaiming their innocence.
But this time around, they have many more people — and evidence — on their side.
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began and finally the day has come for closure," former player Dave Evans told reporters after North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that all charges against him, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, were dropped. "We are just as innocent today as we were back then ... we have never wavered in our story.
Cooper said Wednesday that not only was there insufficient evidence proving the three assaulted an exotic dancer at an off-campus lacrosse player in March 2006, but there was "no credible evidence that an attack occurred at that house on that night." He even proclaimed the players "innocent."
"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."
"All evidence contradicts her story. She contradicts herself," he said of the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum.
Joseph Cheshire, who represented Evans, said defense attorneys will soon begin work to have their clients' arrest record expunged. He called Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, who indicted the players for rape, "a man who had not a care in the world about justice, but only about his personal agenda."
Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said: "If further investigation showed the boys were innocent, he would be in agreement with what the attorney general's office decided to do."
"We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges," he said.
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Freedman said Nifong is "devastated" and "deeply wounded" by the attorney general's characterizations of him. Nifong may appear in public to speak Thursday.
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," Cheshire said, 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 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," he added.
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 Adolf 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 Nifong 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.
All three former players have steadfastly maintained their innocence.
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 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.
"There are all kinds of people who share responsibility for what happened to these boys … institutions and cities and police depts, all kinds of people," Cheshire 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.
Click here to read the latest on the Nifong ethics charges
For its part, Duke released a statement saying it stood by President Richard Brodhead's to suspend the players during the investigation and to defer to the justice system.
The players "deserve our respect for the honorable way they have conducted themselves during this long legal ordeal that ends with their exoneration," said a statement from Robert Steel, chair of the Duke Board of Trustees.
"Much as we wish that these three young men, their teammates and their families — and indeed the whole community of people who love Duke — could have been spared the agony of the past year, we believe that it was essential for the university to defer to the criminal justice system. As imperfect and flawed as it may be, it is that process that brings us today to this resolution."
Steel added: "As we look back — and with the benefit of what we now know — there is no question that there are some things that might have been done differently. However, anyone critical of President Brodhead should be similarly critical of the entire board."
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.
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.