Charges of rape at Duke dropped

But 3 lacrosse players still face sex offense and kidnapping counts

December 23, 2006|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

The Durham County, N.C., district attorney dropped rape charges yesterday against three Duke University lacrosse players after their accuser expressed doubts about her earlier statements. But the prosecutor kept other charges intact, leaving the defendants still facing the possibility of a trial.

The players, including Bethesda's David Evans, who graduated in May, face a first-degree sexual offense count carrying the same maximum penalty - nearly 25 years - as rape does. A kidnapping charge was also preserved and could add to their prison time if they are convicted.

Evans, who relatives say went to work for a communications firm after graduating, "is still a charged defendant in some very serious crimes that he is innocent of. So he has no joy in what happened," said his attorney, Joseph Cheshire.

Evans and teammates Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were indicted last spring after a 27-year-old woman said she was pulled into a bathroom and raped by three men after being hired as a stripper at an off-campus lacrosse team party.

The case rocked the Duke campus and caused upheaval in racially mixed Durham. The accuser, a student at nearby North Carolina Central University, is black, and nearly all of the lacrosse team is white. Some North Carolina Central students said they feared that the justice system would coddle the players because of their privileged backgrounds.

More recently, attention has turned to District Attorney Michael B. Nifong. The prosecutor's handling of the case has been criticized by media commentators and members of Congress - and yesterday by Duke's president.

"The district attorney should now put this case in the hands of an independent party, who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process," Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said in a statement. "Further, Mr. Nifong has an obligation to explain to all of us his conduct in this matter."

All three players are free on bond. In October, Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski told The Sun that Finnerty and Seligmann, who would have been juniors this year, will likely be invited to rejoin the team if cleared of all charges.

Duke's Ed Douglas, a team co-captain from Baltimore's Gilman School who wears a wristband displaying the indicted players' numbers, has said he would welcome the players back.

The rape charges were dismissed in a document signed by Nifong and filed just before noon yesterday. "There is insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution," the document said.

It went on to say that the accuser met Thursday with an investigator from the district attorney's office and expressed second thoughts about her account. "While she initially believed that she had been vaginally penetrated by a male sex organ (penis), she cannot at this time testify with certainly that a penis was the body part that penetrated her vagina," the document said.

Unlike a rape allegation, a "first-degree sexual offense" charge doesn't require proof of vaginal intercourse.

It's not the first time that the accuser has contradicted herself. The woman first told authorities "that she was raped and sexually assaulted by approximately 20 white members of a Duke team," according to a report by civil rights attorney Julius Chambers and former Princeton University President William G. Bowen, which was requested by Duke and released in May.

Nifong was unavailable for comment yesterday. Defense attorneys urged him to drop the remaining charges.

"Do the honorable thing. End this case," said Wade Smith, Finnerty's attorney.

DNA testing in the case has found genetic material on the woman's body from unidentified men, but none of it matches samples taken from the Duke players - information that Cheshire, Evans' lawyer, said was initially withheld from the defense. "It is the ethical duty of a district attorney not to win a case, not to prosecute all cases but to see that justice is done," Cheshire said.

Cheshire said Nifong has no more evidence to support the sexual offense and kidnapping charges than he had for the rape charge.

Nifong's filing was a surprise - two defense attorneys were planning to attend Christmas parties yesterday, and a third was at a movie with his daughter. The attorneys quickly contacted the defendants and their families, who mostly reacted with relief and anger, relatives and defense lawyers said.

Evans' father, Washington attorney David C. Evans, declined to comment, referring questions to Cheshire.

Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, the mother of Duke lacrosse player Gibbs Fogarty, said, "I don't think anyone's considering this a Christmas present or anything, because a present is something that's given in good will."

Fogarty said her first reaction to yesterday's news was positive. "I was thinking, `God, this is so great,' and my whole family was with me, and we were all like, `Thank God.' But then you look at each other, and you're still like, `How did this ever happen?' because it's just such a tragedy. So many lives have been so irreparably harmed."

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