Local News

Defense Attorneys: Rush to Prove Guilt in Duke Lacrosse Case

Posted July 20, 2007 2:56 p.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2007 1:39 a.m. EDT

— Police officers under the direction of former prosecutor Mike Nifong investigated allegations of rape against members of the Duke University lacrosse team in hopes of proving guilt over all else, a defense attorney told a city panel Friday.

"The investigation was directed largely toward proving the truth of her story and the guilt of these young men rather than trying to determine what happened," said Jim Cooney, who represented falsely accused and now-exonerated former player Reade Seligmann.

City officials formed the panel in May to investigate the Durham Police Department's role in the case after the department's internal investigation found no wrongdoing. If the panel finds the department acted unconstitutionally, the city could face lawsuits.

"That's not our purpose, but it could be one result of our efforts," said panel chairman Willis Whichard, a former state Supreme Court justice.

During a two-hour presentation, Cooney outlined the problems that began surfacing shortly after a woman told police she was attacked by three players at a March 2006 team party for which she had been hired to perform as a stripper.

Her accusations led to indictments of Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. State prosecutors have since declared all three men innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."

Nifong resigned as Durham County district attorney after being disbarred for more than two dozen violations of the state's rules of professional conduct during the case.

When another defense attorney, Joe Cheshire, addressed the panel, he questioned why superior officers in the police department weren't more involved in the investigation.

"There seemed to be no senior police presence in this case," Cheshire said during a half-hour statement. "It was a case that was completely out of control and needed some experienced counseling in that regard, and it wasn't getting it."

After hearing Friday's testimony, panel members said they would like to hear from Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers.

"I think the chief of police is responsible for seeing that his officers are doing their jobs and (that) they have the backup and the experience they need," panel member Ken Spaulding said.

Whichard said the panel could subpoena Chalmers if he elects not to appear before them.

"I think he will come," Whichard said.

The presentations highlighted issues that defense attorneys had trumpeted for more than a year before the charges were dropped in April:

  • a lack of DNA evidence linking any player to the accuser
  • her conflicting accounts of an attack that state prosecutors later determined never occurred
  • a flawed lineup using photographs from which she identified Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans as her attackers.

Defense attorneys have said Seligmann and Finnerty weren't at the party when the woman said the attack occurred.

"When you start running into contradictions, when you start running into a complete lack of opportunity (to commit a crime), when you start running into stories that are changing seemingly to fill holes, then you've got to take a step back," Cooney said.

Cooney noted that the investigators handling the case were told by their superiors to report to Nifong as of March 24, 2006 – roughly 10 days after the team party.

Defense attorneys had repeatedly said Nifong pursued the case for political gain because he was facing two challengers in a tight Democratic primary for district attorney in May 2006, an assertion a disciplinary hearing committee of the North Carolina State Bar agreed with in ordering Nifong to be disbarred last month.

"Where was the chain of command on this?" Cooney said. "Why is it Mr. Nifong who is telling (the investigator) what to do when his investigation isn't complete yet?"