A South Carolina sheriff has decided not to pursue criminal charges against Michael Phelps in connection with a recently published photo of the swimmer with his mouth on a marijuana pipe.
"I'm glad this matter is put to rest," Phelps said yesterday in a statement. "But there are also some important lessons that I've learned. For me, it's all about recognizing that I used bad judgment, and it's a mistake I won't make again. For young people especially, be careful about the decisions you make. One bad decision can really hurt you and the people you care about.
"I really appreciate the support my family and fans have shown me, and now I will move forward and dive back into the pool, having put this whole thing behind me."
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced his decision yesterday, ending two weeks of speculation about Phelps' legal fate.
"Michael Phelps is truly an American hero ... but even with his star status, he is still obligated to obey the laws of our state," Lott said in defending his investigation.
Authorities had arrested eight people with ties to the November party at the University of South Carolina, at which Phelps allegedly smoked from a marijuana pipe. An attorney for one of the men said last week that all of the questions posed to his client were about Phelps. The sheriff said Phelps would receive no preferential treatment because of his celebrity. But several South Carolina defense attorneys said the investigation would never have gone as far as it did if Phelps had not been involved.
In the end, there simply wasn't enough evidence to support charging Phelps.
"We had a photo and him saying he was sorry for inappropriate behavior. He never said, 'I smoked marijuana.' We didn't have physical evidence," Lott said.
Lott's decision not to charge Phelps was the only sensible one, said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C., defense attorney who is representing three of the men connected to the party.
"I think that's the inevitable conclusion in an investigation of a picture that was taken in an unknown place at an unknown time," Harpootlian said.
Investigators seemingly tried to build a case against Phelps, he added. "But this tells me that they weren't able to put much together and that it was not worth putting it together," Harpootlian said. "It was really much ado about nothing."
In South Carolina, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $200 and 30 days in jail for the first offense. But local lawyers said that even if Phelps had pleaded guilty to such a charge, he likely would have faced no more than a series of drug tests or a brief stint of community service.
The Olympian, 23, has apologized several times for his "regrettable behavior" captured in the photo. He lost his Kellogg Co. sponsorship deal in the aftermath of its Feb. 1 publication by the British publication News of the World, which Lott said paid $100,000 for the photo. Phelps is also serving a three-month suspension imposed by USA Swimming.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg and the Associated Press contributed to this article.