Local News

Durham Leaders Meet With Attorney About Lawsuit Threat

Posted September 6, 2007 2:17 p.m. EDT
Updated September 7, 2007 12:28 a.m. EDT

— Durham City Council members want to talk further with the city's lawyers before deciding how to respond to a possible federal civil rights lawsuit from three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape and sexual assault.

In a closed session Thursday, city attorney Henry Blinder briefed the council for more than two hours about his meeting on Wednesday with attorneys representing for David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.

The players argue that their civil rights were violated in the yearlong investigation, in which they were indicted, then later declared innocent and all charges were dropped.
Council members must also decide whether to continue with an independent panel examining the Durham Police Department's handling of the case. The possibility of a lawsuit has stalled the panel's probe because the city's insurance company is concerned about how any findings could affect a lawsuit.

The council agreed to not comment on the matter, but City Councilman Howard Clement said before Thursday's meeting that the panel should continue its work.

"I hope that someday, somehow we can resume that effort, because we want to find out where the truth is," he said.

"There were mistakes made in this case, and there needs to be accountability, and the city needs to accept that accountability," City Councilman Thomas Stith III said.

Mayor Bill Bell and at least three City Council members called in May for the special investigation into the police department's handling of the case. An internal department report found no wrongdoing on investigators' part.

It also concluded that the case was hampered, in part, because of then-District Attorney Mike Nifong's strained relationship with defense attorneys and that if it had been better, the case could have been resolved much more quickly.

But Bell said the report lacked focus and left questions about the investigation unanswered.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann have retained high-profile civil attorneys, including New York attorneys Barry Scheck and Brendan Sullivan Jr.

Scheck represented O.J. Simpson in his highly publicized 1995 murder trial, and Sullivan represented Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.

Family members of the three exonerated men have also said little about potential civil litigation.

"We do have civil counsel. They are also excellent," Finnerty's father, Kevin Finnerty, said Wednesday. "We are following their lead."