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Problems detailed in Duke case

The prosecutor did not question the accuser's changing stories, North Carolina's attorney general says in a report.

April 28, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — More than 15 months ago, a black stripper hired to perform at a Duke University lacrosse team party poured out a lurid tale: At least three white players had raped and sodomized her while screaming racial slurs.

On Friday, 16 days after declaring that authorities believe the accused men are innocent of all charges, North Carolina's attorney general released the most detailed account yet of what his office concluded had happened during and after the party on March 13, 2006.

Not only was there no rape or assault, the report by Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper concluded, but the accuser was so "significantly impaired" by alcohol and/or drugs that she stumbled and fell during her brief striptease. Shortly afterward, she was escorted outside, only to pound on the back door and demand to be let back into the house. She also shouted "I'm a cop" and passed out on the back porch, the report said.

While being interviewed by Cooper's investigators early this month, the report said, the accuser was high on at least four powerful prescription drugs including methadone. Confronted with evidence that her allegations were false, the report said, the woman slurred her words but continued to insist that all three accused men had raped her. She also spun a new, equally graphic version of the supposed attack, it said.

Cooper's report did not, however, answer the central question hanging over the sensational and racially divisive case:

Why did Durham County Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong doggedly pursue a prosecution even after it was clear early on that no eyewitnesses, DNA tests or forensic evidence supported the accuser's account? Why did a career prosecutor with a quarter-century of experience rely on a single witness -- an exotic dancer who offered an ever-shifting and contradictory version of events?

Last spring Nifong, who was seeking reelection, publicly called the defendants "a bunch of hooligans" who had shown "contempt ... for the victim based on her race."

As the case began to unravel, the state bar filed ethics charges against the district attorney, accusing him of -- among other things -- withholding evidence that DNA on the accuser's underwear and body had not come from any defendant.

In January, Cooper began a reinvestigation of the entire prosecution. His report concluded that neither Nifong nor his investigators had ever challenged the accuser -- a 28-year-old single mother with a history of substance abuse and mental health problems -- about glaring holes in her accounts.

"This was apparently the first time these questions of inconsistencies had been asked formally," the report said of the woman's meetings with the attorney general's investigators.

The report said the accuser "changed her story on so many important issues as to give the impression that she was improvising as the interviews progressed, even when she was faced with irrefutable evidence that what she was saying was not credible."

For instance, the report said, the woman claimed in a March 29 interview that Duke had paid someone to alter photos of the party, shown to her by the investigators, that contradicted her account.

The report said that in the same interview, she also offered a different rape account in which the three men supposedly lifted her into the air and squatted on the floor to sodomize her. And she made new allegations, saying the defendants had kicked her while she was on the back porch, according to the report's account of the interview.

Last week, Nifong issued a statement apologizing to the three men, whose lawyers are considering filing civil lawsuits against the district attorney.

Nifong did not indicate why he pursued such a flawed case, saying only that he acted based on the information available to him. "Obviously, they [the attorney general's investigators] have had access ... to additional evidence that I have not seen," Nifong wrote.

In announcing April 11 that all charges had been dropped against David Evans, 24, Collin Finnerty, 20, and Reade Seligmann, 21, Cooper called Nifong a "rogue prosecutor." He accused the district attorney of overreaching during "a rush to accuse ... and condemn."

Nifong faces a June hearing before the North Carolina State Bar.

According to Cooper's report, a resident of the Durham house had called an escort service to request two white dancers for a bachelor party. Though the accuser and a second stripper who arrived that night were black, they were asked to perform.

The report concluded that partygoers had shouted racial slurs at the women, but that they did so only after the second stripper hurled racial and sexual insults at partygoers just before she drove away. The inebriated accuser was slumped in the passenger seat, the report said.

The report also said a partygoer had held up a broomstick as the strippers began to perform and that he had suggested using it on them sexually. It said Evans, the only defendant who lived at the house, and his housemate apologized to the strippers while pointing out that they had paid $800 cash for a strip show lasting less than five minutes.

Later, after two partygoers removed cash from one stripper's cosmetics bag, Evans and his housemate told them to return the money, the report said.

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