Players' parents ask Duke to pay legal fees

Duke lacrosse parents have asked if the university will pay legal fees, estimated as high as $3 million, that the families incurred after a woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by three players at a party last year.

The informal request, which raises some legal issues, was made at a campus meeting of several dozen parents, Duke president Richard Brodhead and Robert Steel, the chair of Duke's board of trustees. Duke neither granted the request nor dismissed it out of hand, according to family members present.

Many of the parents who attended that late-February meeting planned to converge on Raleigh-Durham, N.C., expecting a decision today on whether to dismiss charges against Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y., Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J., and David Evans of Bethesda.

Special prosecutors in the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper could announce their verdict "any day this week," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper.

Duke was bracing for a crush of media visitors today in anticipation of an announcement that parents and legal observers believe will vindicate the defendants.

"Has this been an incredibly traumatic thing for the families? Absolutely," said Duke law professor Paul Haagen, who said he couldn't imagine the case going forward. "Something between a tragedy and a farce."

Charges were filed last April and May, sending the campus into turmoil. Team members' parents say the district attorney brought a flawed case and that the university abandoned the 46 players, buckling under pressure by faculty and demonstrators to take action against the team when an African-American stripper's rape allegation surfaced.

Many parents say Duke officials misled them about the university's position, privately assuring them that they believed players' claims of innocence but undercutting the team publicly by making critical comments and forfeiting games.

Paying legal fees now "would show the world that Duke does care about its students and is willing to attempt to make amends [and] that Duke regrets the rush to judgment by members of its community," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son, Gibbs, is a sophomore Duke lacrosse player.

Fogarty said she hopes the anticipated attorney general's announcement "holds no ambiguity and states the truth - there was and is zero evidence that any crime occurred."

Fogarty attended the meeting that was convened before the parents watched their sons play Denver in the second game of the season. Legal fees were among a host of issues raised.

"We brought it up with them," said John Walsh, of Bethesda, whose son, Johnny, is a senior on the team. "A parent specifically said, 'What do you think about paying the legal fees?' And they said it would be inappropriate to discuss now. We hope the university will do what is right."

Duke spokesman John Burness did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment yesterday. Burness has said previously that Duke honored the players' presumption of innocence but had to let the legal system run its course.

The case seemed to unravel in December after District Attorney Michael B. Nifong dropped rape charges, saying the accuser couldn't testify "with certainty" that she was raped. He left kidnapping and sexual offense charges intact.

Legal fees are estimated at $3 million by the Association for Truth and Fairness, a Delaware nonprofit corporation that says it has received about $830,000 so far in donations for the Duke families' legal defense.

"Every member of that team has had to retain counsel. It reaches deep," said Sherman Joyce, a Washington attorney who is on the organization's board of trustees. He is also a trustee at Bethesda's Landon School, which Evans and four current team members attended.

It could be tricky for Duke to foot the legal bills.

"There's a slight awkwardness," said Haagen, the law professor, because the university would be contributing money "for purposes that are not clearly directed to the mission of the university."