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D.A. Says Duke Case `Is Not Going Away'

After DNA tests in the alleged gang rape show no match, Mike Nifong assures upset residents that he'll press forward.

April 12, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — A day after initial tests found no DNA evidence linking any of 46 Duke University lacrosse players to an alleged gang rape at a team party, the district attorney investigating the case told an emotional and sometimes angry gathering of residents that he remained confident about bringing charges.

The prosecutor said further tests were being conducted and confirmed that he was focusing on three players he believed assaulted an exotic dancer hired to perform at the party.

"A lot has been said in the press, particularly by some attorneys yesterday, that this case should go away," Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong said during a public forum at North Carolina Central University. "My presence here means this case is not going away."

The alleged incident -- involving athletes who are white and an accuser who is black -- has highlighted racial tensions in Durham. It has also underscored Duke's historically uneasy relationship with a less-affluent community.

The alleged victim, 27, is a student at the traditionally black North Carolina Central.

On Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after the test results were announced, several hundred residents and students -- most of them black -- gathered in a basketball gymnasium to ask questions of a panel headed by Nifong and Mayor Bill Bell.

The crowd applauded as Nifong downplayed the test results, saying: "You know, I've been doing this a long time, and for most of the years I've been doing this we didn't have DNA."

But the mood turned tense when a community leader asked why almost a month had passed since the March 13 incident with no arrests.

"I know people who have gone to jail for being accused of rape," said Bishop John Bennett, pastor of a Durham church. "In minutes, they're in handcuffs."

According to court documents, the accuser told police that when she and another exotic dancer began their routine at an off-campus house shared by the lacrosse team's co-captains, players became "excited and aggressive." The dancers left, but one of the men persuaded them to go back inside.

Shortly afterward, the accuser said, she was pulled into a bathroom, held by her arms and legs, and raped by three men for about 30 minutes.

Partygoers were heard uttering racial slurs that night, according to neighbors and additional information released by authorities. It was also revealed that a player later sent an e-mail to teammates saying that he wanted to invite strippers for another party, and that he would kill and skin them.

Last week, the university suspended the player, canceled the remainder of the season and accepted the resignation of Coach Mike Pressler.

Authorities had asked 46 team members to provide DNA samples. A 47th player, who is black, was not asked to participate because the accuser told police her attackers were white.

Several people who attended Tuesday's meeting suggested that if North Carolina Central's black basketball players were suspected of gang raping a white Duke student, they would be -- as one speaker put it -- "waiting on DNA [results] in jail."

Nifong responded that he could not arrest all 46 Duke players and had not narrowed the focus to three suspects until last week. He declined to identify the three, saying further investigation was required.

Kerry Sutton, one of several lawyers representing the players, said she met with Nifong on Tuesday morning but declined to comment further.

"I think the district attorney is proceeding cautiously in this case," Deputy Police Chief Ron Hodge said. "He probably has no choice.... It's high-profile."

Some residents expressed anger at the media for publishing the accuser's criminal record -- she reportedly pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts related to stealing a taxi in 2002 -- and for the way in which Durham has been portrayed as blue-collar, if not poor.

The city is a mix of low-income neighborhoods surrounded by thriving suburbs. Research Triangle Park, much of which lies within city limits, features large corporate offices set amid pine forest.

But the crux of Tuesday's meeting centered on a tug of war between Nifong asking for patience and residents expressing doubts about his handling of the investigation.

Victoria Peterson, a local activist, asked why the alleged victim had been taken to Duke University's medical center for examination.

"Are you suggesting that someone tampered with the evidence?" Nifong asked.

Some in the audience shouted, "Yes."

Nifong said to Peterson: "Your comments are exactly what this case does not need right now."

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