Durham, N.C. — Editor's Note: The original headline of this story misrepresented Mike Nifong's comments. It has been changed.
Following an apology Thursday from Mike Nifong to three cleared Duke University lacrosse players, defense attorneys in the case withdrew their motion for criminal sanctions against the former district attorney.
"I sincerely apologize to Mr. (Reade) Seligmann, Mr. (Collin) Finnerty, Mr. (David) Evans and to their families," Nifong said. "It is my hope that all of us can learn from the mistakes of this case, and that all of us can begin to move forward. It is my hope that we can start this process today." (Watch Nifong's complete statement.)
Raleigh defense attorney Joseph Cheshire, who represented Evans, accepted the apology on behalf of all the defense attorneys, who had rejected previous attempts by Nifong to make amends. (Read part of Cheshire's court response to Nifong's apology.)
"This is definitely a change, and I think it's important for him to make that change – that it's important for the public to hear it," Cheshire said after the hearing. "I think it's important for these families." (Hear what else defense attorneys had to say after the hearing.)
Cheshire said the disbarred lawyer's statement was not negotiated in exchange for the sanctions being dropped and that Nifong's apology was his own decision.
"To his credit, I think the people should know that he didn't have to give a statement," Cheshire said.
"He took a big step today," Seligmann's former attorney, James Cooney, said. "And I know my clients, for one, are glad he took it, and they're ready to move on with their lives."
During his North Carolina State Bar ethics hearing last month, an emotional Nifong acknowledged the pain he caused Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann but maintained his belief that something happened at the Duke lacrosse party where exotic dancer Crystal Mangum claimed she was raped, beaten and sexually assaulted in the early-morning hours of March 14, 2006.
Following North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's declaration this April that the three men were innocent, Nifong apologized in a written statement but only "to the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect."
On Thursday, however, he placed no qualifications on his apology.
"I agree with the attorney general's statement that there is no credible evidence that Mr. Seligmann, Mr. Finnerty and Mr. Evans committed any crimes for which they were indicted – or any other crimes against Ms. Mangum – during the party."
"They were entitled to the presumption of innocence when they were under indictment," Nifong continued. "Surely, they are entitled to more than that now as they go forward with the rest of their lives."
The defense's request to drop the motion for criminal sanctions means that Nifong will no longer be required to reimburse the defendants thousands of dollars for costs incurred in the defense's uncovering of exculpatory DNA evidence that could have cleared the players had the case gone to trial.
But they moved forward with a preliminary hearing on whether Nifong should face criminal contempt charges. Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith set a tentative hearing date for Aug. 30 and Aug. 31.
If Nifong is held in contempt, he still could have to pay a $500 fine and spend up to 30 days in jail.
"(The contempt charge is) serious enough that there is a definite risk he could go to jail," Cooney said. "He's not going to jail for years ... but the very prospect of a district attorney being given over to the custody of the sheriff – if even for a day – is a pretty serious thing."
Smith also denied Nifong's attorneys' motion arguing that proper procedure requires an indictment and entitles Nifong to a jury trial rather a trial before a judge.
Special prosecutor Charles Davis argued that criminal contempt is considered by courts across the nation as a petty offense. Therefore, Nifong isn't entitled to a jury trial, he said.
In June, the players' attorneys filed a motion asking Smith to hold Nifong in contempt for telling the court he had provided them complete results from DNA testing performed by a private lab.
Last month, Smith found probable cause to believe Nifong "willfully and intentionally made false statements of material fact" in regard to the evidence during two hearings last year.
Forty-six of 47 Duke lacrosse players submitted DNA samples in March 2006 after Mangum's allegations. In April 2006, however, Nifong learned that the laboratory found genetic material from multiple males on and about Mangum, but none from any lacrosse player.
He didn't provide that information to the defense until October, and only then in the form of nearly 2,000 pages of raw DNA test data that took one of Evans' defense attorney days to decipher.
The defense attorneys claim Nifong knew early in the investigation there was no DNA evidence matching the accused players on neither Mangum nor her belongings.
Those revelations, in part, resulted in a three-member State Bar disciplinary panel disbarring him last month. Nifong resigned as district attorney on July 2, but only after a hearing was scheduled to remove him from office.
"It was an amazing fall from power, an amazing fall from grace by an elected official and a prosecutor – the most amazing fall I've seen," Cheshire said. "It was a long journey of suffering for innocent people."
Nifong's legal issues are not likely to end with the criminal contempt charge. He could also face civil lawsuits from the three former defendants.
"They spent huge sums of money. They've lived in a lake of fire for a year, and they're going to consider all their options," Cooney said. "But what happens down the road, I don't think those decisions have been made yet."