Local News

Judge allows federal lawsuits in Duke lacrosse case

Posted March 31, 2011 6:03 p.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2011 12:31 p.m. EDT

— A federal judge is allowing three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape to pursue a civil lawsuit against the prosecutor and police investigators who handled their case.

U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled Thursday that the players – Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans –  can pursue claims such as malicious prosecution, concealment of evidence and fabrication of false evidence against former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong and a police investigator.

Beaty dismissed several other accusations, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Seligmann's attorney, Richard Emery, said they are prepared to vigorously pursue the case. Charles Davant, an attorney representing Evans and Finnerty, declined to comment.

"The opinion is what I would call, overall, a ringing success for the boys," Emery said. "We're glad that we're moving ahead with the case."

The three were indicted by a Durham County grand jury in 2006 on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. The charges were the result of an investigation that began when Crystal Mangum told police she was raped at a lacrosse team party where she was hired as a stripper.

The case unraveled, however, in the face of Mangum's constantly changing story and a lack of evidence.

State prosecutors eventually took over the case, dropped all charges and declared the players innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."

Beaty criticized the size of the 162-page lawsuit, saying it forced the court to "undertake the time-consuming process of wading through a mass of legally unsupportable claims and extraneous factual allegations."

"Going forward, the parties are encouraged to make every effort to reduce the volume of filings and to avoid unnecessary rhetoric," he said.

The civil lawsuit filed in 2007 claims that Nifong and the investigators knowingly and intentionally concealed critical DNA evidence and produced a misleading DNA report. It calls the criminal case against the players "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history."

Among the people cited in the lawsuit are former Durham Police Chief Steven Chalmers and police investigators Benjamin Himan and Mark Gottlieb. Brian Meehan, the director of DNA Security Inc., which conducted the DNA testing that proved key to unraveling the case, is also named in the suit, as is the lab. The case does not name Mangum.

Beaty also ruled on lawsuits filed by former members of the team who were not charged in the investigation.

Ryan McFadyen, Matthew Wilson and Breck Archer filed a federal lawsuit in 2007, accusing dozens of defendants of fraud, negligence and conspiracy for pursuing the case despite evidence that the rape allegations made against members of the team were false.

The judge threw out most of the 40 claims in the lawsuit. 

Allowed to move forward are four counts each against Nifong and Gottlieb. The counts center on whether the defendants violated the players’ rights in searching their dorm rooms and testing their DNA, whether the men made false statements in public about the unindicted players and whether the men manufactured false or misleading reports of forensic testing.

The judge also allowed obstruction of justice claims to move forward against Duke University, university President Richard Brodhead, members of his staff and the Duke University Health System.

Duke spokesman Mike Schoenfeld said the university will vigorously defend the case.

"Many of the claims in the lawsuits have been dismissed, and the few claims remaining are substantially narrowed, as we had hoped," Schoenfeld said in a statement.

The judge dismissed all claims against the Durham Police Department and said the students can't receive punitive damages from the City of Durham.

The City of Durham issued a statement late Thursday saying it was "gratified" the court has narrowed the issues raised in the cases. 

"We believe the court correctly dismissed the punitive damages claims against the city and are pleased and encouraged by that favorable determination," Durham Public Affairs Director Beverly Thompson said. "The city's legal counsel look forward to studying today's decisions in greater detail and remain optimistic that the cases will ultimately be decided in favor of the city and its personnel."

The players are seeking a jury trial and unspecified compensation for past and future economic loss, harm to their reputations, loss of privacy and other damages.

McFadyen, Wilson and Archer were members of the lacrosse team at the time of Mangum's allegations. 

The men were among the team's 47 members who complied with a judge's order to provide DNA samples and be photographed. The team's sole black member was not tested because Mangum said her attackers were white.

McFadyen was suspended from Duke for an e-mail he sent shortly after the team party in which he described how he would kill and skin strippers, according to court documents.

Administrators later reinstated McFadyen, noting that his remarks were "in jest" and a take-off from "American Psycho," a Bret Easton Ellis novel that was made into a movie about a serial killer.

The lawsuit accuses Nifong and police investigators of failing to include the context of the e-mail in the warrant they used to search McFadyen's dorm room. The search warrant later became public record.

"They knew that Ryan's e-mail, taken out of context, would accelerate the firestorm," the lawsuit said.