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Ex-Duke players get new apology

The former D.A. says there was 'no credible evidence' against the three he prosecuted on rape charges.

July 27, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.C. — Former Durham Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong, appearing downcast and contrite, apologized in court Thursday for his aggressive prosecution on rape charges of three former Duke University lacrosse players. He admitted there was "no credible evidence" against them.

After listening to Nifong's first unqualified apology in the 16-month case, lawyers for the former players dropped their request for sanctions against the disgraced prosecutor, except for a criminal contempt charge brought by a judge. Those sanctions could have forced Nifong to pay some defense legal costs.

Judge W. Osmond Smith III set an Aug. 30 court date on the contempt charge, in which Smith has found probable cause that Nifong "willfully and intentionally" lied to him about DNA evidence that ultimately helped clear the defendants.

If convicted of the misdemeanor, Nifong faces up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and censure.

Nifong said he agreed with the conclusions of North Carolina's attorney general, who re-investigated the case and concluded in January that the three former players were innocent and that a stripper had concocted false accusations.

Nifong, who has already lost his law license for prosecutorial misconduct, told the court that Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans "were entitled to the presumption of innocence" when he charged them with raping a stripper hired to perform at a lacrosse team party in March 2006.

"Surely they are entitled to more than that now as they go forward with the rest of their lives," he said, speaking in a steady voice as he read from a one-page typed statement from the defense table.

Nifong's statement and the dropping of the sanctions motion came after discussions Tuesday between Nifong's lawyers and lawyers for the former defendants, according to court statements.

"I have admitted on more than one occasion that I have made mistakes in the course of my prosecution of these cases," Nifong told the court.

"For that, I sincerely apologize to Mr. Seligmann, Mr. Finnerty, Mr. Evans and their families."

He added: "The last 16 months have proven to be a difficult and painful journey for my family and myself. I know this has also been a difficult and painful journey for Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans, for their families, for Durham and for the state of North Carolina.

"We all need to heal.... It is my hope that all of us can learn from the mistakes of this case."

Joseph B. Cheshire V, Evans' lawyer, told the judge that the former defendants and their families were "very appreciative" of Nifong's public apology. "We don't deny it was a difficult thing," he said.

For months, Cheshire said, "we have sought a real and meaningful apology from Mr. Nifong for the pain he has caused these families and these young men, the entire Duke lacrosse team, the state of North Carolina and others."

In an interview afterward, Cheshire said he accepted Nifong's apology today after rejecting previous, more ambiguous apologies. "These were fairly definitive statements today by Mr. Nifong -- a significant difference," Cheshire said. "He also stated unequivocally that these young men are innocent."

Nifong angered the former defendants and their families last month when he said that he still believed "something happened" in the Durham house. On Thursday, he said there was no evidence that the defendants raped the stripper or "committed any other crimes" against her.

Wade M. Smith, an attorney for Finnerty, said Nifong's statement "helps these families very much."

The lawyers said they were still considering civil suits against Nifong.

On June 16, Nifong was disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar for engaging in "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation." The bar said he withheld DNA evidence, lied to judges and defense lawyers about it, and made prejudicial statements about the defendants.

Nifong announced June 15 that he was resigning as district attorney, heading off his removal from office by the courts.

Lawyers in the case said a plea bargain by Nifong was possible in the contempt case, but cautioned that the judge would require an admission of guilt and a full apology.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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