DURHAM, N.C., Jan. 3, 2007 — -- Suspended Duke University lacrosse players Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann have been invited to return to the school as students.
The invitation comes more than a week after the Durham district attorney dropped rape charges against them and David Evans, and a full semester after the pair were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the rape and kidnapping charges against them.
The university made the invitation today in letters sent Tuesday to the two young men and their families. Finnerty attorney Wade Smith said in a press conference today that he does not know whether his client will return to the school while any charges remain pending.
"As circumstances have evolved in this extraordinary case, we have attempted to balance recognition of the gravity of legal charges with the presumption of your innocence," Duke officials wrote to the Seligmann family in a letter obtained by ABC News Law & Justice Unit.
"Now with the approach of a new term, we believe that circumstances warrant that we strike this balance differently. At this point, continued extension of the administrative leave would do unwarranted harm to your educational progress. We decided … to lift the administrative leave," the letter stated.
"We have decided that the right and fair thing to do is to welcome back Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty to resume their studies at Duke for the spring semester," Duke University president Richard Brodhead said in a statement released today.
"Although the students still face serious charges and larger issues require Duke's collective attention, the circumstances in this case have changed substantially, and it is appropriate that the students have an opportunity to continue their education."
Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong dropped the rape charges against the men after an investigator interviewed the alleged victim last month and learned that she couldn't say with certainty that she'd been raped.
Rape is defined in North Carolina as the penetration of the female sexual organ by the male sexual organ. Nifong said last month that he would continue to pursue felony kidnapping and sexual offense charges against the men.
Mary Ellen Finnerty, Colin's mother, declined to comment, but the Seligmanns seemed to indicate in a family statement that they would pursue civil actions against the accuser and possibly against District Attorney Nifong.
Nifong has weathered vigorous criticism over the past few weeks, including an ethics complaint from the North Carolina bar and a call from the state Conference of District Attorneys to step down from the case.
Also last month Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., sought a Justice Department inquiry into Nifong's handling of the case.
Brodhead, whose seemingly calibrated comments have frustrated supporters of the defendants since the charges were brought, began to criticize the case more sharply last month.
The Seligmanns' statement called the charges "transparently false" and offered equally calibrated thanks to the Duke administration.
"The past nine months have been a very difficult time for our family," read the statement, signed by Reade and his father and mother, Philip and Kathy. "We are grateful and appreciative to those who have supported us during this time, and particularly [for] the outpouring of support … we have received from Duke alumni.
"We appreciate the recent comments by Duke University president Brodhead, questioning the basis for the remaining charges against Reade and Mr. Nifong's conduct in ever bringing these charges. We are also glad Duke University has now made it clear that Reade is welcome to return to the University and look forward to the day that he can return to living a normal life and continuing his education as a full-time student.
"By now it should be plain to any person who has any objectivity that the charges against Reade are transparently false. Reade is absolutely innocent, and we will continue to fight this injustice."
In a statement echoed by supporters and defense attorneys, the Seligmanns said they "are not going to rest until Reade's good name has been cleared and those who have been responsible for this injustice have been held fully accountable."
It was unclear whether the pair would return to Duke University. Sources close to the families of the accused indicated that neither man would return to the North Carolina campus while Nifong was still in office.
Earlier this week, Nifong was sworn in to serve his first full term, which would last through 2010. He was appointed Durham district attorney last year when Jim Hardin, the former district attorney, was appointed to a judgeship. Nifong won a tight primary race in the spring, amid the growing investigation, and he went on to win the general election last fall.
Duke University officials have declined to comment specifically on the academic status of Finnerty and Seligmann, saying only that it is school policy to suspend students charged with felonies.
Last spring the three men were charged with rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after one of two women hired to do striptease dances at an off-campus lacrosse party claimed she had been brutally raped, sodomized and beaten in the bathroom of the house where the party took place.
Since those accusations, the woman's credibility has been challenged and legal communities -- both within Durham County and nationwide -- have sharply criticized Nifong's management of the ongoing case.
Earlier this week, Nifong said that he would not recuse himself from the Duke case at this point.
"If we get to the point where it appears that my presence in an investigation or anything like that is a hindrance, then we can deal with that at that time," Nifong said. "But I've been elected to do a job, and I intend to do that job.
"Durham has some healing to do. I intend to be part of that healing process. And I need to have something to do with how we move forward in light of the events ... that happened over the course of the last year."
Nifong declined to elaborate on what role he intended to play in the healing of the community.