Local News

Durham Officials Mum on Lacrosse Lawsuit Situation

Posted October 4, 2007 12:12 p.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2007 10:57 a.m. EDT

— Durham City Council members were tight-lipped Thursday after a closed-door meeting about a potential federal civil rights lawsuit by three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape and sexual assault.

Council members left the session without comment, but the issue has already assumed a central role in the Durham mayoral race.

Last month, civil attorneys for David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann met with the city's attorney and gave the city until early October to respond to a reported $30 million settlement to avoid the suit.

The players maintain their rights were violated in the yearlong investigation, in which they were indicted, then later declared innocent, of allegations that they raped, sexually assaulted and beat an exotic dancer at a team party.

Council members must decide whether to agree to the settlement, which also includes reforms to the legal process; to negotiate a different settlement or to fight a possible lawsuit.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann are each seeking about $10 million, their attorneys told The Associated Press last month.

In addition, attorneys are seeking the creation of ombudsman positions to review complaints of misconduct about North Carolina district attorneys, and they want Durham city officials to lead the lobbying for any legal changes that would require action by the state's General Assembly, a person close to the case told The AP.

The City Council must also decide whether to proceed 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.

Mayor Bill Bell and at least three City Council members called for the probe after an internal department report found no wrongdoing on investigators' part.

A document showing a timeline of police activity in the lacrosse case, which was made public this week, showed Bell met with police early on in the case.

Bell said he wanted to find out if lacrosse players were cooperating with investigators and he wanted to let officers know he was worried about mounting tensions.

Councilman Thomas Stith, who is running against Bell for mayor in next week's election, said Bell pressured police to solve the case quickly. That could increase the city's liability in the lacrosse players' potential suit, he said.

"The only reason we're even talking about this now is because someone on this council wants to discredit me for his own political gain," Bell said. "It's petty, exploitive and a waste of people's time."

"The real issue is, was the process pushed forward by a higher level? When asked that, the mayor became forgetful," Stith said.