Duke DA Apologizes To Lacrosse Players

Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong listens during a District Attorney candidates forum at the Durham County Judicial Building in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, April 12, 2006.
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
The local prosecutor who charged three Duke lacrosse players with raping a stripper apologized to the athletes Thursday, acknowledging that the North Carolina attorney general's decision to drop the case was correct.

"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.

Lesley Stahl will have an exclusive interview with the three players on "60 Minutes" this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
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."