In a stunning show of solidarity, the entire Duke men's and women's lacrosse teams gathered to support their former teammates at a news conference following the announcement, reports CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.
David Evans, one of the defendants, reflected on the case.
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. 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."
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."
Joe Cheshire, one of the players' attorneys, bitterly accused the media of portraying the athletes as criminals, and said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved."
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who took over the case after Durham County District Mike Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation concluded not only that the evidence against the young men was insufficient, but that no attack took place.
"We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night," Cooper said.
It was March of last year when a 27-year-old African-American woman, one of two exotic dancers hired to perform at a Duke lacrosse team party, told police she was forced into a bathroom, beaten, and raped by three white men, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
Arrests came swiftly — and publicly.
Reade Seligmann and Colin Finnerty were paraded in handcuffs, adds Orr. Evans, their lacrosse team co-captain, was booked in front of TV cameras.
But the sensational case had been troubled almost from the start after DNA samples found no link to any of the Duke lacrosse players and the accuser's story about what happened that night began to change.
The attorney general said the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the woman'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."
"I hate to say it, I have absolutely no feelings at all, at all," Reade Seligmann's father, Phillip, told Couric, referring to the players' accuser. "This is a woman who perpetrated a hoax on the state of North Carolina as well as the city of Durham, Duke University, and these three kids and their families."
Cooper called for the passage of a state law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove a prosecutor "who needs to step away from a case where justice demands."
"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," he said.
The allegations at first outraged the Raleigh/Durham community. But that anger largely shifted to Nifong as his evidence against the three fell apart and questions surfaced about the accuser.
Nifong, who was away from his Durham office Wednesday, has been charged by the state bar with ethics violations connected to his handling of the case and could face disbarment.
"Nifong is done as a prosecutor, and perhaps as an attorney, too," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "By far the worst mistake he made was his failure to promptly interview the alleged victim in the case to determine for himself from the outset whether her story would or could withstand the scrutiny they both knew would come."
From its earliest days, Nifong, seeking re-election as district attorney after being appointed to the job a year earlier, had driven the investigation. The woman initially said she was gang-raped and beaten by three white men at the March 13, 2006, party thrown by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team.
The three indicted players' insisted the accusations were "fantastic lies," and another dancer who had been with the woman also questioned if she had been raped.
At the end, it appeared the case was based only on the testimony of the accuser, whom defense attorneys said had told wildly different versions of the alleged assault.
The other dancer who was at the lacrosse party raised questions about the accusations and Nifong dropped the rape charges in December after the accuser changed a key detail in her story, Orr reported. Nifong recused himself a few weeks later after the state bar charged him with violating several rules of professional conduct.
Nifong's recusal in January put the players' fate in the hands of Cooper, who promised "a fresh and thorough review of the facts."
The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. It later added more serious offenses of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court and bar investigators. He's scheduled to stand trial on those charges in June.
Nifong had accused the lacrosse team of refusing to cooperate, calling them "a bunch of hooligans," and promised DNA evidence would finger the guilty. His case started to erode, though, when no DNA evidence tying any player to the accuser was found.
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.
Danowski said he had moved the team's afternoon practice to Wednesday night so his players could attend a planned defense news conference with their former teammates.