Local News

Durham Faces Federal Lawsuit From Ex-Lacrosse Players

Posted October 5, 2007 10:47 a.m. EDT
Updated October 25, 2007 1:24 p.m. EDT

— Three former Duke lacrosse players Friday filed a federal lawsuit  that seeks  damages from Durham and asks the court to order numerous changes in how the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.

The suit against the city of Durham, former District Attorney Mike Nifong, former police Chief Steve Chalmers and several police detectives and officers wants the defendants punished "for outrageous conduct pursued out of actual malice" that violated the players' civil rights.

It calls for the appointment of an independent monitor who would oversee the police department for 10 years and have the power to hire, fire and promote police department personnel, including the chief of police. The monitor would answer only to the federal court.

City spokeswoman Beverly Thompson said the city's attorneys will conduct a "full and thorough review" of the 155-page complaint and fight it.

"We understand the complaint assesses claims against the city and its employees that appear to be based on untested and unproven legal theories," Thompson said in a statement. "In light of that, the City Council has directed legal counsel to vigorously defend the city and city employees in court against this lawsuit."

"We look forward to it," said Richard D. Emery, a New York-based civil rights attorney representing Reade Seligmann, one of the plaintiff trio. (Hear the full interview with Emery.)

The city has 20 days to respond.

Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty also want to change photo-identification lineups like the one that helped secure their indictments. One thing they want is to have all identification procedures, both formal and informal, videotaped.

Other reforms include establishing an independent citizen review panel to publicly hear complaints of police misconduct; requiring results of DNA and other scientific tests to include raw data, and requiring the monitor to approve all written and spoken communication from the police and Crime Stoppers during an investigation.

Police personnel should also be trained on the chain of command in criminal investigations, issuing public statements, conducting identification procedures, serving warrants, prohibiting threats against witnesses, standardizing notes and other documents, supervising private contractors and standardizing probable cause. (Read what else the plaintiffs want.)

"The demands here are to protect other people from false accusations that these boys suffered – other people in Durham and other people throughout the country – by using this case as a deterrent," Emery said.

North Carolina Central University political science professor Jeffrey Elliot said the demands could be one reason why the city is not willing to settle the lawsuit.

"To take that extreme step would suggest that the police department was riddled with corruption," he said.

An independent panel was examining the police department's role in the lacrosse case up until August, coming behind an internal police probe that found no wrongdoing. The possibility of a lawsuit stalled the panel's work because the city's insurance company is concerned about how any findings could affect a suit.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Friday the City Council has not decided whether the panel's work will continue.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were charged in April and May 2006 after exotic dancer Crystal Mangum claimed she was raped at an off-campus party hosted by lacrosse players. Even as the case unfolded, Nifong pursued charges of first-degree rape, kidnapping and sexual assault until December, when he dismissed the rape charge against the three men.

Less than a month later, he recused himself from the case and asked for a special prosecutor to handle it. Earlier this year, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped the case, saying his special prosecutors had found no grounds to proceed.

The lawsuit charges Nifong and the other defendants conspired to keep alive a pitifully weak case as he faced a tightly contested election in the Democratic primary for district attorney.

The ex-players contend that Nifong, the police and others withheld exculpatory evidence, intimidated witnesses who would undermined the investigation, made numerous public statements to smear the lacrosse players, and used a photo lineup that had only  lacrosse players so Mangum would name three team members as her attackers. The suit says it all was intentional or stemmed from officials not supervising subordinates as they should have.

The complaint also accuses the defendants of ignoring Mangum's shifting versions of the alleged attack and accuses police department leaders of negligently allowing Nifong to take control of the investigation.

Last month, the players lawyers gave the city until early October to respond to a reported $30 million proposed settlement. The two sides could not agree on the deal,  which would have included the city's leading lobbying for legislation to limit the power of district attorneys.

"The city's response to our offer to negotiate has been pitiful and disappointing and not worthy of discussion," Emery said. "And so, we're going ahead with the lawsuit."

The city is self-insured for $500,000 in damages, and the city's insurance company would pay a maximum of $5 million for any other damages awarded to the plaintiffs. Anything else would be paid from the city's general fund. Depending on the amount of any awarded damages, it could mean a tax increase to cover the excess.

"The big losers are the taxpayers, the citizens – who are innocent parties in this," Elliot said.

The complaint also asks for an injunction prohibiting Dr. Brian Meehan and his private laboratory from providing any reports or expert testimony in a court proceeding for 10 years. Meehan, the director of DNA Security Inc., was hired to test DNA samples from 46 members of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team.

Meehan had told Nifong by April 2006 that testing had found genetic material from several unidentified men – though none from any lacrosse player – in Mangum's underwear and body. That information was not included in a report summarizing the lab's findings, and Nifong did not provide it to defense attorneys until October.

When he did so, the information came in the form of nearly 2,000 pages of raw data that took one of Evans' defense attorneys days to decipher.