Defense Seeks 'Federal Intervention' in Duke Case

ByABC News via via logo

Dec. 26, 2006 — -- The lawyers of three Duke lacrosse players who are accused of sexually assaulting a North Carolina woman have asked the U.S. attorney general to look into the prosecutor's conduct during the case, Michael Cornacchia, the attorney for defendant Collin Finnerty, told "Good Morning America."

"We're seeking federal intervention. ... We can't allow this to continue another day," Cornacchia told "GMA" anchor Chris Cuomo. "Under the color of law, he's depriving our clients of constitutional rights."

Durham, N.C., District Attorney Mike Nifong announced last week that he was dropping the rape charges against the three defendants -- Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.

Cornacchia said Nifong had mishandled the case in his identifying of the three young men, his public statements and by withholding evidence.

"He knew that the DNA didn't match before he indicted the [defendants]," Cornacchia said. [When I was a prosecutor], I didn't accuse anybody unless I had ... reasonable doubt.

"Accusation is destruction," he said.

When prosecutors interviewed the accuser for the first time -- last Thursday -- she said she was uncertain whether there was penetration, which differs from statements she made to police in April.

At that time, the accuser said she was brutally raped and beaten by three men during a lacrosse team party at a house near the Duke University campus, claiming that she was "vaginally penetrated by a male sex organ," without a condom. The accuser and another woman were hired as exotic dancers and paid to strip at the party.

After Nifong's announcement Friday that he was dropping the rape charges against the three young men, many legal experts have wondered what is left of the prosecution's case.

In the beginning, Nifong was applauded for insisting on bringing charges against members of the Duke lacrosse team.

"My presence here means that this case is not going away," Nifong said earlier.

But then he dropped his bombshell announcement Friday: that the accuser had changed her story and could not testify with certainty that she was raped, despite telling police during a lineup in April that she'd been raped.

Now Nifong, who said he would still try the young men on kidnapping and sexual-offense charges, is receiving a very different kind of attention.

"What we have now, ladies and gentleman, is a prosecutor going forward with a case when he knows he has multiple contradictory statements from that person," said one of the defendant's attorneys, Joseph Cheshire.

Nevertheless, Nifong will rely almost exclusively on the testimony of the accuser. He's already admitted there's no scientific evidence tying the players to the alleged attack.

Defense attorneys said Nifong tried to hide lab results that showed DNA samples from multiple other men were found on the accuser's underwear. Nifong called it an oversight.

"What this says to a jury is we have an accuser who is not credible," said Robert K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College in New York. "What this would say to any ethical prosecutor is that this is a case that should never have been filed."

Cornacchia called Nifong's accusations that the defense was attempting a character assassination of the accuser a diversion from the real issue.

"It's a smoke screen to bring attention away from his misconduct in the case," Cornacchia said. "It's the not the victim. … It's [Nifong's] handling of the case that's being criticized by us."

Still, Nifong is pressing on, telling reporters as he left his office, "All the documents have been filed and they speak for themselves."

The defendants are holding up emotionally with the help of their families, Cornacchia said.

"The families are united and they're supporting their sons," he said. "It's a nightmare. ... But they're holding tough and they're determined to see this to the end."

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