Local News

Attorney: Lacrosse Lawsuit Aims to Find Full Truth

Posted February 21, 2008 11:13 a.m. EST
Updated February 21, 2008 9:58 p.m. EST

— A lawsuit filed Thursday by 38 lacrosse players seeks "full truth and accountability" from the institutions and people that the players say caused and prolonged the lacrosse team's ordeal during a 13-month investigation into rape allegations.

The list includes Duke University, the City of Durham, police investigators and a nurse who examined the woman who charged that three members of the 2006 Duke team had raped and sexually assaulted her at a party in March 2006.

"The players and their families are united in their determination to insist on the full truth and accountability from Duke and the City of Durham," Charles Cooper, the lead attorney handling the case, said Thursday while announcing the lawsuit at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

"The pain and suffering they experienced cannot be erased. The misconduct of the university and town officials cannot be undone," Cooper said. "But this suit will enable them to learn the full truth, to put the facts in plain view in a court of law."

The suit asks unspecified damages for emotional distress and other injuries in connection with the investigation that made national headlines and eventually led to the disbarment of former District Attorney Mike Nifong after it collapsed.

The lawsuit accuses Duke of ignoring, suppressing and discrediting evidence that proved the players innocent and of standing by while the players suffered abuse and harassment on campus. It says the school imposed discipline that implied the team was guilty when it suspended and then canceled the highly ranked team's 2006 season.

Cooper said Duke turned its back on the players to protect the university's image.

"This lawsuit is born out of Duke and Durham's sustained wrongdoing and callous conduct against the players," Cooper said.

"Duke, rather than providing that needed support, coldly turned away and abandoned these young men and their families," said Steve Henkelman, of Swarthmore, Pa., a named plaintiff whose son, Erik, was a senior on the 2006 team.

Duke President Richard Brodhead conceded after charges had been dismissed that Duke students and faculty “were quick to speak as if the charges were true.”

Pamela Bernard, Duke's vice president and general counsel, said Thursday that the families had declined a university offer to cover the cost of any attorneys' fees or other out-of-pocket expenses.

"If these plaintiffs have a complaint, it is with Mr. Nifong. Their legal strategy – attacking Duke – is misdirected and without merit," she said in a statement.

"We will vigorously defend the university against these claims," Bernard continued.

The suit also said Nifong and his investigators hid and fabricated evidence, and the City of Durham should be held accountable for Nifong's actions.

But Cooper said the lawsuit does not name Nifong – although drafts of it did – because of his pending declaration of bankruptcy. Nifong is claiming more than $180 million in liabilities, almost all tied to the prospect of losing two other lawsuits stemming from the rape case.

"If it comes to pass that he will no longer be protected by federal bankruptcy, he will be named in the lawsuit," Cooper said.

Durham interim City Attorney Karen Sindelar did not immediately return a phone call from the Associated Press seeking comment Thursday.

With Thursday's filing, all but three members of the 2006 lacrosse team are plaintiffs in a lawsuit.

The three players who Nifong charged – and who were later declared innocent – have also sued the former prosecutor, Durham and the police detectives who handled the case. They reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the university in June.

Three other players filed a suit last year, accusing the school, Nifong and numerous others of a conspiracy that inflicted emotional distress.

None of the lawsuits named Crystal Mangum, the woman who said she was raped.

Cooper said his clients chose not to name the accuser as a defendant because of her mental health and history of drug use.

When state prosecutors dropped the case last year, declaring the players innocent and Mangum's allegations false, they said the woman "may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling."

"Those elements of the background of this have been published," Cooper said. "For those reasons, we see no reason to bring her into this action."

John Conley, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor who specializes in civil litigation, said there's also no financial payoff in suing Mangum, a single mother and college student who was working as a stripper in March 2006

"You're making your case infinitely messier in a way that gives you no economic benefit," Conley said. "Why would you go through the trouble of a lawsuit against her if she has no means to pay the judgment?"

Mangum hasn't spoken publicly since granting a single interview in the early days of the case, and people close to her family have said she's cut ties while trying to rebuild her life.

Based almost entirely on her story, Nifong won indictments against David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann after she accused them of raping her at an off-campus team party.

The case eventually unraveled and the charges against the three men were dismissed in April 2007 after the North Carolina Attorney General's Office agreed to Nifong's request that it take over. Nifong had, by then, dismissed the rape charges against the trio but was pressing the others.

“For more then a year, the lacrosse players were caught up in a horrifying personal nightmare," Cooper said.

"They were harassed in class by teachers and their fellow students," he said. "They were victimized by a corrupt investigation that ignored or suppressed evidence that would have cleared them. And, all for a crime that never took place.”