DURHAM, N.C. — A prosecutor's decision to drop rape charges but keep other counts against three Duke University lacrosse players has left many legal experts - including some who had supported him - wondering what case he could have left.
Sexual offense and kidnapping charges remain against the defendants, but even some former backers of District Attorney Mike Nifong say the accuser may have lost her credibility for good after backing off a key allegation.
"I don't understand why all the charges aren't being dropped at this time," said Norm Early, a former Denver prosecutor who works with the National District Attorneys Association and had previously approved of Nifong's handling of the case. "It's such an incredible credibility problem that you wonder how the prosecution could rehabilitate her on the other charges."
The woman says Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans attacked her March 13 at a team party where she had been hired as a stripper. In a five-page statement she gave police in early April, she wrote that she was raped. Nifong dropped rape charges against the three men Friday.
"He got a rape indictment, so presumably he must have felt there was unequivocal evidence there was penetration," said Duke law professor James Coleman, a frequent critic of Nifong's handling of the case. "And for him now to say the only person who could have established that now isn't sure, that's pretty extraordinary."
Without DNA evidence linking the three players to the accuser, the woman's testimony figures to be the key element of the prosecution's case. Both Early and John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said that means the defense is sure to make the dismissal of the rape charge - and what it implies about her credibility - an issue at trial.
Banzhaf said no jury is likely to believe a witness who for months contended she had been raped, but now isn't sure.
"This is the beginning of the end," Banzhaf said. "If they couldn't make the rape case, I don't see how they could make the others."
Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans insist they are innocent. Their attorneys have repeatedly called on Nifong to drop the case, citing the lack of DNA evidence, criticizing how police conducted a photo lineup and maintaining that the accuser, a 28-year-old student at North Carolina Central University, has given investigators at least a dozen different versions of the alleged assault.