RALEIGH, N.C. — State prosecutors on Wednesday dismissed all charges against the three defendants in the Duke University lacrosse sexual assault case.
"There is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges," Attorney General Roy Cooper said at a news conference that attracted national media attention. "The result is these cases are over."
The announcement marked the end of the 13-month criminal case launched against David Evans, 24, Reade Seligmann, 21, and Collin Finnerty, 20, after an exotic dancer -- a 28-year-old North Carolina Central University student -- alleged she was gang-raped, beaten and sodomized for 30 minutes during an off-campus party at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. in the early-morning hours of March 14, 2006.
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began, and now it's finally come to closure," Evans said at a news conference held by the defense attorneys. "We're just as innocent today as we were back then."
Although sexual assault victims often provide varying accounts of a traumatic experience, Cooper said, the statements made by the accuser, Crystal Mangum, varied too much and there was no other evidence to support her story of an assault.
WRAL usually doesn't identify sexual assault victims. The decision to identify Mangum is based not only on the dismissal of all charges, but also because Cooper described the three players as innocent and said there was no credible evidence that an attack occurred.
"The inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred at that house on that night," Cooper said, adding that the photo identification lineup was flawed and no DNA evidence linked the players to the women.
Mangum had no comment Wednesday about the attorney general's decision to dismiss the remaining charges in the case.
Finnerty, Seligmann and Evans watched Cooper's news conference with their families and attorneys at a downtown Raleigh hotel. When the decision to drop the charges was announced, there was an audible gasp in the room, and the players and their families began to sob.
"Don't expect us to be happy," defense attorney Joseph Cheshire said. "We're angry, very angry. But we're relieved."
Cheshire said the players were needlessly berated and ridiculed for months.
"These men were, are and always will be innocent," he said. "They have been mistreated as badly as any group of people I have ever seen."
On April 17, 2006, a grand jury indicted Seligmann and Finnerty on first-degree forcible rape, first-degree sexual offense and first-degree kidnapping charges. Evans was indicted on the same charges May 15.
The three men maintained their innocence throughout the investigation, and Evans even spoke publicly to the media before surrendering to Durham authorities one day after he graduated.
"I am absolutely innocent of all the charges that were brought against me," he said last May. "These allegations are lies. Fabricated. And they will be proven wrong."
In the months that followed, the highly publicized case -- which had already drawn attention across the nation because of the issues of race, privilege, fairness in the justice system, politics and ethics -- took a number of different turns, with defense attorneys questioning Mangum's credibility and the political motives of Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.
Nifong, who was in Winston-Salem for part of Wednesday meeting with his own attorney, had no comment.
Questions surrounding Nifong and his handling of the case also prompted the North Carolina State Bar to launch an investigation, and Nifong now faces allegations of ethics violations and a June 12 trial date. If he is found guilty, he could be disbarred.
The case had been troubled almost from the start, as DNA samples found no link to any of the white Duke lacrosse players, and the black accuser's story about what happened that night began to change.
Kim Roberts, a second dancer at the party, called the allegations "a crock." Seligmann produced ATM and fast-food receipts, cell phone records and other evidence that suggested he was not at the party when the rape supposedly took place.
Cooper called the pursuit of the case "a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations." Without naming Nifong, he came down forcefully against "overreaching prosecutors" and called for a law that would allow the state Supreme Court to remove a district attorney from a case whenever such a move would assist the pursuit of justice.
"There were many point in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," he said. "In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.
"Regardless of the reasons that this case was pushed forward, the result was wrong."
On Dec. 22, Nifong dropped the rape charges against Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans after Mangum told an investigator she was no longer certain a rape -- as state law defines the act -- had occurred.
Mangum likely still believes the sexual assault allegation and wanted to proceed with the case, Cooper said. But he said criminal charges wouldn't be pursued against her.
"Our investigators, who talked with her over a period of time, think that she may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling," Cooper said. "And in reviewing the whole history -- there are records under seal that I'm not going to talk about … -- we decided it's in the best interest of the justice system not to bring charges."
Mounting scrutiny also prompted Nifong to recuse himself from the case on Jan. 12. According to his attorney, David Freedman, Nifong was concerned the accusations against him would be a distraction in the case, and he wanted to make sure there was a fair trial.
On Jan. 30, Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith, the single judge appointed to preside over the case, postponed a critical hearing from Feb. 5 to May 7 so that special prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general could review the case. During that proceeding, Mangum was expected to testify and defense attorneys were planning to ask Smith to throw out her photo identification of the defendants.
With the criminal investigation now over, some legal observers say civil suits filed by the former defendants are possible for violating their constitutional rights and possibly for slander.
"I think it's likely at this point," said Durham civil attorney Carlos Mahoney, who has no connection with the case. "It sounds like the parents and the families are very interested in pursuing a civil lawsuit, and I would expect one to be forthcoming."