"To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students that were wrongly accused," Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong said in a statement.
"I also understand that whenever someone has been wrongly accused, the harm caused by the accusations might not be immediately undone merely by dismissing them," Nifong added. "It is my sincere desire that the actions of Attorney General Cooper will serve to remedy any remaining injury that has resulted from these cases."
Nifong refused to answer any questions after handing the statement to an Associated Press reporter outside his office in Durham.
Jim Cooney, attorney for former player Reade Seligmann, responded bitterly to the apology.
"You can accept an apology from someone who knows all the facts and simply makes an error," Cooney said. "If a person refuses to know all the facts and then makes a judgment, that's far worse particularly when that judgment destroys lives."
In a blistering assessment of the case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper on Wednesday dropped all charges against the players, all but ensuring that only one person in the whole scandal will be held to account: Nifong.
"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," Cooper said, adding that the three athletes were railroaded by a district attorney who ignored increasingly flimsy evidence in a "tragic rush to accuse."
The three white Duke lacrosse players — Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty — were accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper at a party. They 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 at which she had been hired to perform.
Nifong, running for reelection in a heavily black district when the case first started, openly proclaimed the players' guilt.
"There's no doubt in my mind that she was raped and assaulted at this location," Nifong said last year.
The rape charges were dropped months ago; the other charges remained until Wednesday.
Collin Finnerty's father, Kevin, told CBS' The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith that he is bitter toward Nifong.
"I feel like we're religious people, yet in my heart I have little room for forgiveness," he said.
Nifong is facing ethics charges and possible disbarment, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Wallace. In addition, North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones has called for a federal investigation of his handling of the duke lacrosse case.
"What Mr. Nifong has done, in my opinion, is just trampled on the constitutional rights of these young men," says Jones.
Duke University law professor James Coleman speculated that Nifong used the three young men to further his political career. "I think at the beginning he believed something happened. He saw it as an opportunity to get his name out there," Coleman told The Early Show, adding of Nifong, "he rushed to judgment."
Wallace reports that Nifong's attorney, David Freedman, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case, but urged people not to jump to conclusions.
"People who are critical of him, saying he should not have rushed to judgment, themselves, should not rush to judgment," says Freedman.
The case stirred furious debate over race, class and the privileged status of college athletes, and heightened longstanding tensions in Durham between its large working-class black population and the mostly white, mostly affluent students at the private, elite university.
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations, said his own investigation into a stripper's claim that she was sexually assaulted at a team party found nothing to corroborate her story, and "led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred."
"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," Cooper said. "In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."
At an often-bitter, I-told-you-so news conference following Cooper's statement, the three young men and their lawyers accused the news media and the public of disregarding the presumption of innocence and portraying them as thugs.
And finally today it's coming to a closure," said 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."
Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved." Afterward, Cheshire said work would soon begin to expunge the trio's arrest record in the case.
The attorney general said the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the stripper's story, no other witness corroborated it, and the woman contradicted herself.
"Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges," Cooper said. He said the charges resulted from a "tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations."
Cooper offered no explanation for why the stripper told such a story and would not discuss her mental health. However, he said no charges will be brought against her, saying she "may actually believe" the many different stories she told.
"We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges," he said.
The accuser's whereabouts were not immediately known. The Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex-crime cases.
Nifong had accused the lacrosse team of refusing to cooperate, calling them "a bunch of hooligans."
The players largely cooperated with police, and the defense later said a series of tests Nifong ordered from a private lab found genetic material from several men on the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any member of the Duke lacrosse team.
However, if the defendants try to sue Nifong for the way he handled the case, "they are going to have their hands full winning that civil case," said Cohen. "All public officials, and prosecutors in particular, are afforded tremendous immunity from lawsuits when they are acting in their official capacities, as Nifong was here."
Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted in May. Duke temporarily suspended sophomores Finnerty and Seligmann in the wake of their arrest. Both have been invited to return to campus, but neither has accepted. John Danowski, the former coach at Hofstra who took over the Duke program last summer, has said that both are welcome to continue their lacrosse careers with the Blue Devils.