DURHAM, N.C. — A grand jury indicted two members of the Duke University lacrosse team Monday for the alleged rape of an exotic dancer, practically ensuring months of continued controversy in a school and city that have been consumed by issues of race, sex and privilege since details of the case emerged in March.
The indictments were issued under seal and the names of the suspects were not known. But a source close to the investigation confirmed that they were lacrosse players and added that arrests could come as early as this morning. The source declined to be identified because of the secrecy of the proceedings.
In a prepared statement, Robert Ekstrand, an attorney for 35 of the 46 athletes originally under investigation, said, "Two young men have been charged with crimes they did not commit."
The indictments came one week after defense attorneys urged Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong to drop the case. They cited crime lab results that showed no DNA evidence linking any Duke players to the alleged rape, which the dancer said was committed by three men.
Those results initially gave some observers -- including some Duke students -- the idea that team members might be exonerated.
Anisa Keeratiworanan, 21, an economics major from Thailand, hadn't heard details of the indictments Monday. But last week's DNA tests made her think that the lacrosse players were off the hook.
"I feel like we know they didn't really do anything now," she said.
But Nifong, who is up for reelection next month, said last week he was convinced a sexual assault had taken place and indicated he would press ahead. He added he was awaiting results of additional DNA tests. It was unclear whether he had received new test results or further indictments were forthcoming. Nifong refused to comment Monday.
Legal experts said it was not unusual for a prosecutor to proceed with a sexual assault case in the absence of DNA evidence. There could be a number of reasons for the lack of such evidence, including the possibility that the suspects wore condoms.
Without DNA, Nifong would likely have to put more emphasis on proving the accuser's story, said Robert Laurino, a chief assistant prosecutor in Essex County, N.J., who has tried or overseen thousands of sexual assault cases.
"If there is no DNA evidence, you've got to go back to speaking to the victim and try to corroborate anything and everything that she says," Laurino said.
Details of the case are considered particularly combustible in Durham, a Southern city of 187,000 that is about 44% black, with pockets of both affluence and poverty. For decades it has been home to Duke, one of the nation's top academic institutions, which was a segregated campus until 1963.
The accuser is an African American who attends a historically black college across town. The 46 players who gave DNA samples to police were all white, and practitioners of a sport largely associated with upper-class Northeastern prep schools.
According to court records, a player hired the woman and another dancer to perform for teammates March 13 at an off-campus house rented by team co-captains. At one point in the evening, according to the accuser's account in court documents, she and the other dancer left after a partygoer threatened to sexually assault them with a broomstick. But a man came outside and convinced them to come back in. The accuser said she was then dragged into a room and raped for about 30 minutes.
A neighbor said he heard one partygoer yell a racial insult at the two dancers as they drove away from the party. It was later revealed that a Duke player sent an e-mail to fellow players saying he hoped they would hire more strippers so he could skin and kill them.
In a previous prepared statement, the team captains called the woman's accusations "totally and transparently false."
On Monday, Bill Thomas II, an attorney who represents a lacrosse captain, said it was "a very sad day for our community, and it's a very sad day for the cause of justice. This case is totally without merit.... There's no doubt in my mind that they will be acquitted, but it is going to be a long, hard, arduous process."
The continuation of the investigation, he said, was taking a toll on the team, which has already seen its season canceled and the resignation of its coach, Mike Pressler.
"Imagine the mood of the 40 players, who have no idea whether their lives will be turned upside down," Thomas said. "That's the thing. None of these men have a clue which one will be accused. It's truly a roulette wheel."
Defense attorneys have accused Nifong of trying his case in the media, and they have responded aggressively in turn. To help with their message, supporters of the lacrosse team last week hired Bob Bennett, a former federal prosecutor who represented former President Clinton in the Paula Jones sex harassment case.