After a thorough investigation, the North Carolina attorney general found that there was a "tragic rush to accuse" and the players were absolutely innocent.
"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a damning assessment of Durham County District Attorney 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."
Duke University law professor James Coleman was suspicious from the beginning.
"The D.A. said the students refused to cooperate, they wouldn't talk to the police and I knew that wasn't true," he told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "That's when I knew he was trying to build a case against these students."
Coleman was on a committee appointed to investigate rumors about the accused players and the men's lacrosse team and said that the circumstances surrounding the case ended up being "something of a perfect storm."
"It had all kind of elements, but we know now it was based on this false notion a crime had been committed," he said. "That generated everything. That gave energy to everything."
The story, as it was portrayed in the media, was about class and race in a community surrounding an elite university (Duke is called the Harvard of the South). The three accused represented — at least in the eyes of their critics — the privileged white students many felt were running wild on campus. But in the end, none of it was true, Coleman said.
"It got reported that way over and over, and then it became fact," he said. "You know, it took a year for the truth to catch up."
District Attorney Mike Nifong, Coleman said, was initially motivated by the belief that a crime had occurred but also saw it as an opportunity for him to gain fame and notoriety.
"He was in a political race," Coleman said. "You know, he rushed to judgment. I think the attorney general said it properly, he rush to judgment."
During the past year, there have been several stories about race and sports, including the recent debacle with radio host Don Imus and comments he made about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Coleman says they are all related.
"I think what's happening is that athletes are treated like disposable items," he said. "We forget they are human beings, students and have feelings, and we just ignore that. They are treated like commodities."