Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina's top prosecutor dropped all charges Wednesday against the three former Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a party, saying the athletes were innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse" by an overreaching district attorney.
"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in an assessment of Durham County District Mike Nifong's handling of the sensational, racially charged case. "In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation "led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred."
"I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to a lot of people," Cooper said in a news conference held before dozens of reporters in the press room at the arena where Raleigh's NHL team plays.
At an often-bitter, I-told-you-so news conference with the three young men and their families, defense attorney Joe Cheshire accused the media of portraying the athletes as criminals, and said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved."
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure," said one of cleared defendants, David Evans, his voice breaking at one point. "We're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed, the facts don't change."
He added: "I'm excited to get on with my life. It's been a long year, longer than you could ever imagine. ... But I hope these allegations don't come to define me."
Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said before Cooper's announcement that Nifong has "complete confidence in the attorney general's office to make the appropriate decision."
Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted in the bathroom at an off-campus house during a team party where she had been hired to perform. The rape charges were later dropped; until Wednesday, the other charges remained.