RALEIGH, N.C. — Ten months after it began and strained by legal controversy, the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case is now in the hands of the state attorney general.
Prosecutors there will decide whether charges should move forward or be dropped, but no one knows how long that will take.
Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong had asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to take over, and Cooper said Saturday that his top special prosecutor and a second attorney have been given the reins.
Nifong’s handling of the case has been questioned by many and attacked by some.
Cooper's lawyers will examine the entire case against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans, Cooper said.
“I wish I could tell you this case will be resolved quickly, but it’s my understanding that there are numerous documents and other information in the district attorney’s files and the court record records. Since we have not been involved … all of the information will be new to our office. Any case with such serious criminal charges requires a careful and deliberate review,” Cooper said.
Pushing the case out of his office allows Nifong to concentrate on defending himself at a North Carolina State Bar trial on charges that he made comments to the media early on that he should not have made.
Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans were charged with first-degree rape, first-degree sexual assault and first-degree kidnapping in connection with an alleged March 2006 incident in which a 28-year-old exotic dancer told police she was gang-raped, sodomized and beaten in a bathroom of a house where she had gone to perform for the lacrosse team.
Nifong dropped the rape charges last month after the accuser told investigators she could not testify confidently about details that would be needed to prove rape in North Carolina, according to papers that defense attorneys have released.
“We’re taking a completely new, fresh look at this case,” Cooper told reporters. “The path that these case travel will be lighted by the law and the evidence alone.”
Cooper cautioned that his office's taking over the case “doesn’t guarantee a trial, nor does it suggest a dismissal.”
Currently, a hearing is set for Feb. 5 to argue whether or not the photo lineup identification process that Durham investigators used should be thrown out. The woman who brought the accusations against the players has been ordered to appear then.
Cooper said Jim Coman, a former director of the State Bureau of Investigation and head of the attorney general's Special Prosecution Section, and Mary D. Winstead, a prosecutor in that division, would now oversee the case.
Coman has 22 years of experience in the Attorney General's office, and has prosecuted more than 250 criminal jury trials. Winstead is a former assistant district attorney for Durham and Wake counties and has 25 years of experience prosecuting cases across the state of North Carolina.
“This is a review of all of the information and evidence that has been connected thus far. We will look to see if there are any things we need to reexamine,” Cooper told reporters. "There is a lot that is there already, and it is incumbent on us to review all that.”
"Certainly, our office will meet with the accuser," Cooper said.
The case has been controversial and divisive in Durham and beyond, bringing accusations that race and class have played roles.
“We are going into this with our eyes wide open as to the evidence, but with blinders on to all other distractions,” Cooper said.
Appointed district attorney in 2005, Nifong faced two challengers in last May's Democratic primary and later in the November general election. He won both ballots, though with less than 50 percent of the vote each time.