RALEIGH, N.C. -- 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.
The Duke community is largely behind the players, said Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor. He said the climate has vastly changed since a year ago, when demonstrators staked out the wood-frame house with peeling paint where the Duke co-captains had hosted the party. The protesters banged pots and pans for a "wake-up call" to the athletes.
It was a different story yesterday on the campus of North Carolina Central, a historically black university across town where many believe the accuser, a 28-year-old fellow student.
Candice Benbow, a graduate sociology student who said she knows the accuser, said she had to sit down when she heard that the charges had been dropped.
"I knew it was going to happen," Benbow said. "You're rich and you're white and the world is pretty much your oyster. I will stand on the belief that something happened to her, but she was up against Duke money."
"It clearly will be a conversation on campus," Benbow said.
The case is over - the dismissal papers filed yesterday cited ""insufficient evidence" - but the damage can't be undone, Duke parents said.
John Walsh of Montgomery County, whose son Johnny plays on the team, said there will always be associations with a period he can never forget.
"You Google our kids and their names will always come up with this. That's the nature of the Internet," Walsh said.
Many of the Duke parents and their sons, who think the university did not stand by the players early in the case, had hoped that Duke would apologize. That didn't happen yesterday.
Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said in a statment: "From the outset, I have been careful to note that these students were entitled to the presumption of innocence and I looked to the legal system to determine the merit of the charges. Now, finally, that process has given us a decision based on a thorough and objective review of the evidence."
Other remaining issues include:
Lawsuits. Some lacrosse parents, not ready to let the matter rest, have been looking into whether Nifong or Duke could be liable.
Haagen said he has heard critics of Duke argue that the university "enabled" Nifong to bring his case. By not standing up for players, the argument goes, the university sent signals that the athletes might be guilty.
A March 2006 statement from Brodhead particularly bothered some parents.
"Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke," the statement began. It went on to note that "people are presumed innocent until proven guilty."
Haagen said it would be difficult at best to establish a "chain of causation" between Duke's actions and those of Nifong.
"There are always creative theories," he said. "It does not look to me like there's anything I am aware of where Duke could be held liable in any proximate way for these damages."
Asked about the possibility of suing Nifong, Cheshire said, "There are civil actions and other things that could be had, and all of those things are under consideration."
Legal fees. The Sun reported yesterday that some Duke parents had informally asked the university in late February whether it would pay legal fees, which are estimated to run as high as $3 million. The university has neither granted the request nor ruled it out.
"I believe that Duke's participation in the payment of legal fees would be a very powerful and important statement and would help the families and Duke to move forward from this horrible situation," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son, Gibbs, plays on the team.
Duke spokesman John Burness said yesterday that the request is "still under discussion."
The players' futures. Evans has graduated. Seligmann and Finnerty could still return to Duke and play on the team, which is ranked in the top five nationwide. Neither has made a decision.
One person who has moved on, Mike Pressler, who resigned as Duke's lacrosse coach in April last year after the school canceled the rest of the 2006 season, is now coach at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He spoke yesterday at a news conference, a day after speaking to his old Duke team, and said he is proud that the lacrosse players have stood together for the past year.
"Two days after this [the charges], I knew what the truth was. ... You say you believe somebody and then you stand by it. That's what we did. Other people can't say that," Pressler said. "It's about vindication. The attorney general said it today. I didn't say it. Innocent."
Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.
KEY EVENTS IN DUKE CASE
March 13, 2006: Members of Duke University's men's lacrosse team attend a party where two exotic dancers perform. The next morning, one woman tells police she was sexually assaulted.
March 23: DNA samples are taken from 46 team members.
March 28: The university suspends play for the team.
April 5: Coach Mike Pressler resigns; season is canceled.
April 10: Defense lawyers announce that DNA results show no link between a sexual assault and any players.
April 18: Two Duke players, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, are arrested on rape and related charges.
May 15: A third player, David Evans of Bethesda, is charged with rape. June 5: Duke reinstates the men's lacrosse program for the 2007 season with stipulations.
June 8: Defense lawyers say in court papers that the second dancer who performed at the party, Kim Roberts, contradicted key elements of the accuser's account.
Dec. 13: Defense lawyers say in court papers that DNA testing suggests that the accuser might have had sex, but not with any of the players.
Dec. 22: Prosecutors drop rape charges, but the players still face kidnapping and sexual offense charges.
Jan. 12: District Attorney Michael B. Nifong asks for a special prosecutor to replace him on the case so that he can defend himself against a state bar ethics complaint.
April 11: North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper drops all charges, saying the athletes were victims of a "tragic ... rush to accuse."