With North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's announcement today that he is dismissing all criminal charges against three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexual assault and rape, the battles for legal redress by the former defendants are set to begin.
Attorneys for the players have told ABC News that they would "explore all options." Defense sources suggested that those options would include lawsuits against Mike Nifong, the widely criticized Durham County district attorney now facing state bar ethics charges for his handling of this case, and police department, at a minimum. The players could bring lawsuits against the accuser, the police, Duke University and Duke president Richard Brodhead.
Here, ABC News, with help from outside legal experts, explores the most likely options:
Possible Lawsuit Against Mike Nifong
The players have accused Nifong of illegally withholding crucial DNA evidence, lying to a judge, conducting a flawed and possibly illegal lineup, maliciously prosecuting them without probable cause, and making defamatory statements to the press.
While prosecutors generally have complete and absolute immunity from liability for actions taken in their official capacities, the players could argue that Nifong should lose that level of protection because he went outside his official duties and acted as an investigator, not a prosecutor, in the way he directed the lineup and intervened in the work of a private DNA lab.
If these arguments succeed, his immunity will become "qualified," making him liable for all actions that he knew or should have known were illegal.
The players could then sue Nifong for deprivation of constitutional rights (due process and the right to a fair trial) under a federal civil rights law, abuse of process and malicious prosecution, defamation of character, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and "outrageous conduct," a catchall for any misconduct that "shocks the conscience."
Possible Lawsuit Against Durham Police
The Durham police could be sued for depriving the players of their civil rights when the department conducted an arguably illegal lineup. Yet since the police have immunity from most legal actions, the players would need to prove the police acted in bad faith, and that the players were "harmed" by the lineup.
Possible Lawsuit Against Duke
The players could sue Duke University or Duke President Richard Brodhead for mishandling the situation and suspending the students, but legal experts say this would probably be a losing case. As a private institution, Duke did not owe its students "due process," and so had the right to suspend them and make true statements about the felony charges.
There are also reports that parents of Duke lacrosse players asked the university to pay their legal expenses. Defamation could be established only if it's proved that Duke or Brodhead made false statements that each knew at the time were false.
Possible Suit Against Accuser
Although Cooper announced he would not file charges against the accuser, she could also face a lawsuit from the players for defamation of character, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, or outrageous conduct for her role in putting the players through this ordeal. But since she is "judgment proof," meaning she does not have the financial resources to defend or pay a judgment against her, this lawsuit would be purely symbolic.
Settlement the Most Likely Option
After initiating a lawsuit against Nifong and the police, legal experts said the players could and most likely would engage in settlement talks with the attorney general's office, through which they could potentially receive a monetary award. This would avoid a messy lawsuit that would be difficult to win, and it would give the players some financial redress.