Charges dropped in Duke lacrosse case

State Attorney General Roy Cooper said today he would dismiss sexual assault and kidnapping charges against three former Duke University lacrosse players, declaring them "innocent of these charges" and accusing Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong of overreaching.

Cooper said at a news conference at the RBC Center that he would drop the charges against David Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md.; Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y.; and Reade Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J.

Cooper said the accuser will face no charges. The 28-year-old woman still maintains that she was assaulted.

“Our investigators who talked with her and the attorneys who talked with her over a period of time think that she may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling,” Cooper said. “They worked real hard with her. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t piece it together.”

Cooper, who took over the case after Nifong recused himself in the wake of ethics charges, proposed a law at his news conference that would allow the state Supreme Court to remove a prosecutor from a case in certain circumstances.

“This case shows the enormous consequences of over-reaching by a prosecutor,” Cooper said. “The Durham District Attorney pushed forward unchecked. There were many moments in this case where caution would have served better than bravado.”

Cooper said the special prosecutors have talked to Nifong and were to tell him of the decision today.

"We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," Cooper said.

Nifong will face disciplinary action at the State Bar on ethics charges. A hearing is set for Friday on his efforts to win dismissal of the most serious counts against him. The three accused players could sue Nifong, the accuser and the Durham Police Department, alleging violation of their civil rights. Duke University and others also could be named as defendants in lawsuits.

From the beginning, the three lacrosse team captains who lived at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd., where the party took place, told police the accusations were lies. The captains, including Evans, voluntarily gave statements and DNA samples to police. They offered to take polygraph tests.

Despite that early cooperation, Nifong and police officers told the public that the team had put up a wall of silence. At first, the lacrosse players said nothing to reporters. Nifong, who was in the middle of a tight electoral campaign, declared that a racially motivated gang rape had occurred and called the lacrosse players hooligans.

DNA evidence would point to the guilty party and absolve the innocent, Nifong said at the time. When lawyers brandished test results showing no semen, blood or saliva from the players on the woman, Nifong down played the significance.

Nifong turned to DNA Security, a private laboratory in Burlington. The lab examined swabs from the woman's body and underwear and found no trace of DNA from any member of the lacrosse team. The lab did find DNA from unidentified men on the woman and her underwear; Nifong and the lab director agreed not to report those results. The State Bar says that decision violated state law.

Those test results remained secret until defense lawyers got a court order for copies of all the lab's documents in the case.

Asked how much damage the case had done to the community, Cooper said: "I think all over the country there is certainly racial and economic injustice ... but for the purposes of this case, we looked at the facts and the evidence alone and made a decision on it. ... I'll leave it to other people to decide any kind of long term effects this has."

Defense attorneys for the players are planning a news conference of their own this afternoon.