Charges Dropped in Duke Lacrosse Case

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After the three former Duke lacrosse players were exonerated of all charges today, the lawyer for Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, who first moved to prosecute, gave ABC News an exclusive reaction to the dismissal.

"He pushed the case as long as he did because at that point he believed in this case," David Freedman said, referring to Nifong. "Sometimes it takes time for false accusations to get resolved through the legal system, if that is what happened in this case. It doesn't mean the prosecutor was wrong to go forward."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that all charges were dropped today at a press conference.

Reade Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty were indicted last year on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual assault tied to an alleged attack at a lacrosse team party March 13, 2006.

In the hours after the party, one of the two black dancers hired to perform for the players claimed she had been violently raped in a bathroom by white members of the lacrosse team.

A team of attorneys for the newly exonerated players held a press conference shortly after the attorney general announced that the case was officially over. The families of the three young men were on hand, as were members of the Duke lacrosse team and their supporters. All three players have maintained their innocence since the allegations emerged last year.

Evans, who has already graduated from Duke and vowed shortly after his indictment to disprove the accuser's "fantastic lies," was the first of the three to speak.

"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began and finally, today it's come to a closure," Evans said. "Nothing has changed. The facts don't change, and we have never wavered in our stories."

Evans spoke about the need to address problems within the justice system that were revealed during the state's unsuccessful case. He even cited the financial successes of his parents as one of the reasons the trio was able to escape a false prosecution. It was a sentiment echoed by Finnerty and Seligmann in their remarks.

"I hope these allegations don't come to define me," Evans said. "My family and I can sleep at night knowing we did everything we could do. … I can walk with my head held high."

The rape charges, brought forward by Nifong, were dropped in December. In January, Nifong recused himself amid charges of unethical conduct filed against him by the North Carolina Bar Association. The two other counts -- both felonies -- had been pending until Cooper's announcement.

While the three accused lacrosse players may find some closure with the charges dropped, Nifong's fate remains unclear. He could lose his license to practice law in North Carolina because of the ethics charges, and he could face civil charges from the accused players and their families. Cooper's public statements Wednesday are unlikely to help Nifong, a publicly elected official he described as a "rogue prosecutor" whom the state needed to stop.

After the state accepted control of the case, Nifong's attorney told ABC News that the prosecutor understood he would be "more a hindrance than a help" as the case proceeded. Still, Freedman also denied that Nifong dropped the case because he had lost faith in the merit of the charges. From the early days after the party, Nifong was outspoken in his confidence that the accused Duke players had committed a crime.

Under special prosecutors Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, the state examined the evidence from scratch, interviewing key witnesses in an explosive case that combined sensitive issues of race and class.

"The result is that these cases are over and no more criminal proceedings will occur," Cooper said, calling the original prosecution a "rush to judgment" and describing Nifong as driven by "bravado."

"We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night," he said.

Cooper also said that he did not expect any charges to be filed against the accuser, whose account has changed multiple times in the last year. Cooper said that the accuser may be suffering mentally and may actually believe some of the stories she told prosecutors.

In addition to the dismissal decision, Cooper also proposed a law that would give the North Carolina Supreme Court the power to remove rogue prosecutors under certain circumstances.

Cooper's decision comes almost exactly one year after Seligmann and Finnerty were indicted on April 17, 2006. Evans was indicted two weeks later.

Former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who stepped down from his post shortly after the alleged incident, celebrated the news at a press conference at Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he now serves as head coach.

"I am thrilled, overjoyed and relieved," said Pressler. "They have suffered greatly and unjustly."

The university also responded, with Duke President Richard Brodhead issuing a written statement that welcomed the news and praised the three players' families for carrying themselves with "dignity through an ordeal of deep unfairness."

The Duke campus was bitterly divided after the three players were charged, with some students coloring the lacrosse program as thuggish and others rallying around the nationally ranked athletic program.

"The attorney general did not dismiss the allegations on narrow, equivocal or legalistic ground," Brodhead wrote. "He determined our students to be innocent of the charges and said they were 'the tragic result of a rush to accuse.' In short, he used the strongest language of vindication."

Defense attorneys had released a series of documents detailing how the accuser changed key details in her story in the weeks and months after the alleged assault.

Legal analysts and forensic experts also criticized what they called a critically flawed photo identification lineup -- a lineup that led to the identification and indictment of Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann.

No DNA evidence was found matching any lacrosse players with samples from the rape kit, while DNA from unidentified men was found on the accuser's body and clothing.

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