Friday, July 27, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Former prosecutor Mike Nifong acknowledged yesterday there is “no credible evidence” that three Duke lacrosse players committed any of the crimes he accused them of more than a year ago.

“We all need to heal,” Mr. Nifong said in his first complete and unqualified apology to the players. “It is my hope we can start this process today.”

His apology came as a judge began considering whether to hold the former Durham County district attorney in criminal contempt of court for his handling of the case.

Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III has concluded there is probable cause to believe Mr. Nifong “willfully and intentionally made false statements of material fact” to the court during a hearing in the case last fall. If he finds Mr. Nifong in contempt after an Aug. 30 hearing, the now-disbarred ex-prosecutor could face up to 30 days in jail.

The case started with Crystal Mangum’s accusations that she was raped at a March 2006 team party where she was hired as a stripper. Mr. Nifong won indictments against three team members, but the charges were later dropped, and state Attorney General Roy Cooper went further by declaring the three men innocent victims of Mr. Nifong’s “tragic rush to accuse.”

Yesterday, Mr. Nifong apologized.

“I agree with the attorney general’s statement that there is no credible evidence that [Reade] Seligmann, [Collin] Finnerty or [David] Evans committed any of the crimes for which they were indicted — or any other crimes against” Miss Mangum, he said. He declined to comment after the hearing.

Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire called previous apologies “far from sincere” and said the families would have to decide whether to accept the latest one. None of the three players was in court.

“I think it is a statement that has much more validity than any of the other so-called apologies he has attempted to make,” Mr. Cheshire said.

The players want Judge Smith to hold Mr. Nifong in contempt for telling the court he had provided the defense complete results from DNA testing when he had not. Mr. Nifong learned in April 2006 the laboratory found genetic material from multiple males on and about the accuser, but none from the lacrosse team. He didn’t provide that information to the defense until October.

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