- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Prosecutors have decided to drop all remaining charges against three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a team party.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office took over the case in January after the local district attorney was accused of ethics violations, announced that all charges would be dropped and said the players were innocent.

“We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house,” said Cooper.

The sensational case was troubled almost from the start. DNA samples found no link to any of the Duke lacrosse players, and a critical change to the accuser’s story forced the dismissal of rape charges in December.

The person who talked to the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made, did not list state prosecutors specific reasons for dropping the remaining charges.

Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted at a lacrosse team party where she had been hired to perform as a stripper.

The allegations at first outraged the Raleigh/Durham community - the woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University; all three Duke players are white. But that anger largely shifted to Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong as his evidence against the three fell apart and questions surfaced about the accuser.

Nifong, who was away from his office Wednesday, has been charged by the state bar with ethics violations connected to his handling of the case and could face disbarment.

“We just hope this traumatic experience for all involved ends with the minimum amount of damage,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Chicago-based Rainbow/Push Coalition had offered to help the accuser pay for college but wasn’t able to contact her.

The 28-year-old woman initially said she was gang-raped and beaten by three white men at the March 13, 2006, party thrown by Duke’s highly ranked lacrosse team.

The three players who were indicted insisted the accusations were “fantastic lies,” and another dancer who had been with the woman also questioned if she had been raped and said the woman seemed drunk when she tried to drive her home that night.

In the end, it appeared the case was based only on the testimony of the accuser, whom defense attorneys said had told wildly different versions of the alleged assault.

That shifting story led Nifong to drop the rape charges in December, but the other charges remained.

Nifong’s recusal in January put the players’ fate in the hands of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who promised “a fresh and thorough review of the facts.”

The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. It later added more serious offenses of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court and bar investigators. He stands trial on those charges in June.

Nifong had accused the team of refusing to cooperate, calling them “a bunch of hooligans,” and promised DNA evidence would finger the guilty.

His case started to erode, though, when no DNA evidence tying any player to the accuser. The second dancer at the party called the allegations “a crock.” And Seligmann produced ATM receipts, cell phone records and other evidence suggesting he was somewhere else at the time.

Defense attorneys also attacked a key photo lineup that used only pictures of lacrosse players, and they noted the accuser had claimed a decade earlier that she had been gang-raped but it never led to an arrest. 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 member of the Duke lacrosse team, they said.

Duke temporarily suspended Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., in the wake of their arrest. Both were invited to return to campus but neither accepted.

Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted.

John Danowski, the former coach at Hofstra who took over the Duke program last summer, has also said that both are welcome to continue playing lacrosse with the Blue Devils. On Wednesday, he said he moved the team’s afternoon practice back so his players could attend a planned defense news conference with their former teammates.

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