Local News

Nifong: Duke Lacrosse Rape Investigation 'Not Going Away'

Posted April 11, 2006 7:46 a.m. EDT
Updated January 7, 2007 1:34 p.m. EST

— Durham County's district attorney told a crowd of about 700 people Tuesday that the investigation into rape allegations against three Duke University men's lacrosse athletes "is not going away," and that more DNA tests could be possible.

District Attorney Mike Nifong hinted during a forum held at North Carolina Central University on Tuesday that prosecutors had other evidence and were waiting on the results of additional DNA tests. It was not, however, immediately clear what those tests involved.

Nifong has also said he doesn't necessarily need DNA evidence to prosecute.

"My conviction that a sexual assault actually took place is based on the examination that was done at Duke Hospital," Nifong said.

No charges have been filed in the case, but Nifong has said he believes a crime occurred at the March 13 party, which according to court records was attended only by lacrosse players. The woman, an exotic dancer, said her attackers were white, and DNA samples were taken from every white member of the team.

The forum came the day after defense attorneys representing the 46 players announced that the DNA samples failed to match DNA evidence taken from the alleged victim.

According to court documents, a physician and specially trained nurse found that the alleged victim -- a student at N.C. Central -- had "signs, symptoms and injuries consistent with being raped and sexually assaulted."

Nifong was one of five panelists on the forum, which was supposed to focus on the general topic of sexual violence toward women. Many questions and opinions expressed, however, were about the rape investigation, the issue of racism and the responses from prosecutors and the media.

"Are you planning to arrest those three men?" asked Victoria Peterson, one woman attending the forum. "That's the only thing I'm asking."

Nifong said that until he can identify the three men suspected of attacking the alleged victim, members of the lacrosse team "are going to be walking around under a cloud."

Other panelists included Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, N.C. Central Senior Class President Deondra Ramsey and Duke Student Body President Jesse Longoria.

Shawn Cunningham, a student at N.C. Central, told Nifong and Bell that he was angry with people blaming the alleged victim.

"The press has disrespected this young lady," he said. "You have minimalized (her) to a stripper and an exotic dancer. You don't identify her as a mother. You don't identify her as a student. You don't identify her as a woman."

The 27-year-old woman has told police that she and another woman were hired to dance at the party and that three men there dragged her into a bathroom, choked her, raped her and sodomized her. The allegations led to days of protests on and off the Duke campus.

"Our biggest concern is that the issues that traumatize us will be forgotten when this case is over," Ramsey said. "Students at NCCU, alongside with students at Duke, know that it is time to come together to ensure that justice is served."

Longoria said he hoped his presence would help lessen tensions between the city of Durham and his university.

"I really feel that how we respond in the coming days, weeks and months will really go a long way, not only to define our national perception but also future relationships," he said. "I hope we can have a positive dialogue, and this can be the starting point for positive change."

Nifong's Case Without Merit, Defense Attorney Says

On Monday, during a news conference, defense attorneys said they hoped the negative DNA results would begin a healing in a community that has been greatly affected by the allegations. They also expressed their desire for Nifong to drop the case, asserting that no sexual assault took place.

Although the DNA results did not show any links between the lacrosse athletes and the alleged victim, Nifong said Tuesday that 75-80 percent of cases don't hinge on that kind of forensic evidence and that he doesn't need it to prosecute a case.

Nifong said at Tuesday's forum that he didn't want to reveal too many more details of the ongoing investigation, but throughout the morning's sometimes-heated discussion, he hinted that the alleged victim might have identified one of the three men she says raped her.

"Anytime you have a victim who can identify her assailant, then what you have is a case that must go to the jury, which means, in this situation, a jury will get to evaluate the evidence," Nifong said.

Court experts not connected with the Duke investigation have said that the DNA results could make prosecution difficult, but not impossible.

Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman agreed that DNA evidence is not necessary to win a conviction, but said Nifong would have a lot to overcome without it.

"In this day and age, it's the 'CSI' effect," he said, referring to the popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" series on TV. "If you don't find the evidence, then maybe it's not the guy. In 'CSI,' they always find the evidence."

Attorney Thomas has said that authorities found none of the alleged victim's DNA in the bathroom where she told police she was attacked.

"Our experts tell us that being gang-raped by three men would leave DNA material to be examined," he said.

Goldman said the failure to find any matching DNA evidence, is "not the end of the case, but it's kind of damning to the prosecution case."

"Isn't the absence of DNA evidence, given the way the victim has described the crime, in and of itself almost enough to raise a reasonable doubt?" Goldman asked. "That's all the defense has to do."

Attorney Bill Thomas said Tuesday that in addition to the DNA results, he believes the second dancer at the party on the night in question will also help the defense's case.

"Our information is she's not backing up this allegation of rape," Thomas said.

With the second dancer not corroborating the accuser's story and the DNA results, Thomas said the case is one without merit.

Still, they say that as long as Nifong continues to build his case, the defense team will, too.

"You have to prepare from Day 1 as if you're going to war," said defense attorney Kerry Sutton. "We've been doing that, and we will continue to do that."