DURHAM, N.C. -- It was April 2006 when the first charges were filed in the Duke sexual assault case. The tulips were in bloom and the campus was a lush green.
The tulips had returned as the final charges were dropped against three former lacrosse players yesterday.
But the attitude at Duke - and in the country - couldn't have been more different toward the three accused former players and the 35 returning team members, who had once felt the wrath of their campus peers but are now seen as victims worthy of sympathy.
The current players said they began to feel embraced when an overflow crowd showed up to cheer their first home game in late February.
Yesterday, after charges were dropped against him and two others, Reade Seligmann said he could finally begin to contemplate the end of a "yearlong nightmare" and the beginning of "a healing process."
Seligmann, Colin Finnerty and Bethesda's David Evans were visibly moved as about 65 current members of the men's and women's lacrosse teams stood to applaud them during a news briefing after sexual offense and kidnapping charges had been dropped.
It was a scene that Melinda Wilson, whose son plays on the team, has been waiting for.
"I was just so happy to see someone finally do the right thing," she said of state Attorney General Roy Cooper and his staff's decision to dismiss the case before a trial. "I wish somebody had done it a little earlier."
Wilson had hoped to attend Cooper's announcement, which was held in a Raleigh arena that is home to the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes and the North Carolina State basketball teams. But she was denied entry because she is not a media member, so she watched it on a big screen at a nearby restaurant.
The former Duke players, their families and lawyers say they'll never forget the climate in Durham a year ago.
"They have been mistreated as badly as any group of young men that I have ever seen," said Joseph Cheshire, an attorney for Evans.
Around campus last year there appeared what looked like a Wanted poster featuring the faces of Duke lacrosse players. "Please Come Forward," the poster said.
Demonstrators staked out the home where Duke co-captains had hosted the party where an exotic dancer was said to have been raped. A sign taped to the stairs said: "This morning you will hear the noise of pots and pans clanging. This is the sound of a wake-up call. This is the sound of Durham coming out to say that we will not tolerate this behavior in our neighborhood, our city."
Almost overnight, players said they began to feel alienated on their campus. The March 2006 announcement of Duke's season being suspended came, coincidentally, in the midst of the university's annual Sexual Assault Prevention Week.
"I had attended that [event] in the past, and it was alarming to be suddenly considered the problem, I guess," Ed Douglas, a Duke co-captain from Baltimore, said as he prepared for this season. "There were the typical characterizations of hooliganism and people being afraid of being around us."
Yesterday, Evans said he got stuck in a hotel elevator and almost missed the media briefing at which he was one of the stars.
When Evans took the podium, he said it was painful to reflect on the past year. "I'd like to thank the attorney general for giving me back my life," he said.
The Duke case
North Carolina's attorney general drops the remaining charges in the Duke lacrosse rape case, saying the athletes were victims of unchecked prosecutorial power. PG 1A
Reporters and columnists are being faulted for leaping to conclusions about the accused players. PG 6A
What they're saying about yesterday's decision. PG 5E
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