Three former Duke lacrosse players got the news they had long hoped for yesterday when the state attorney general dropped the remaining charges in the rape case that divided the campus, saying the athletes were victims of "unchecked" prosecutorial power.

Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed sexual assault and kidnapping charges, and also condemned Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, whose case triggered a national debate on race and class.

"We believe that these cases were the tragic result of a rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," Cooper said. "There were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado."

For the three former players and their parents, the reaction was not so much joy as relief.

David Evans of Bethesda appeared with the other players who had been accused, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, at an emotional news conference in a downtown hotel ballroom.

Evans, his voice cracking, told of going "to hell and back" during a year in which he said he was compared to Hitler and his image appeared on a mock "wanted" poster.

"I'm excited to get on with my life," said Evans, who was indicted the day after he graduated from Duke last year. "It's been a long year, longer than you could ever imagine."

Before Evans spoke, 34 of the 41 members of the men's lacrosse team filed into the room wearing slacks, button-down shirts and ties. They stood and applauded their former teammates as each of the three was introduced.

Members of the women's lacrosse team also attended to show their support. The idea of attending "came from the kids themselves," said John Danowski, coach of the men's team.

Danowski said, jokingly, that perhaps now he and his team can focus entirely on lacrosse, beginning with a game against defending national champion Virginia on Saturday.

"It's going to be a beautiful day, 73 degrees. Let's play lacrosse," the coach said, smiling.

Cooper said the accuser, an exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party, had wanted to pursue the case but that she repeatedly gave contradictory accounts of what happened on the early morning of March 14, 2006.

He said the woman, a student at North Carolina Central University, "may actually believe the many stories she has been telling" but that the lack of evidence "led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred."

He said he wasn't inclined to seek charges against her based on the inconsistencies.

Not present yesterday was Nifong, who brought the case a year ago after the woman said she had been pulled into a bathroom and raped by three men at the lacrosse party just off campus.

In the midst of a re-election campaign, Nifong vowed last spring to pursue the case despite a lack of DNA evidence. At the time, demonstrators on the campus and in Durham were demanding that the players be brought to justice.

Nifong's next public appearance is scheduled for tomorrow, when he asks the state bar to dismiss complaints accusing him of withholding evidence from the defense and making inappropriate, derogatory statements about lacrosse players.

Nifong dropped the rape charges in December, then withdrew from the case in January, after being charged by the state bar with ethics violations.

The district attorney wasn't the only target of the former players and their attorneys yesterday. Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire criticized the "out-of-control" media for failing to stand up to Nifong and elements of the Duke community for believing that the district attorney had a case.