Prosecutor Moves Forward

By Joe Holley and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

DURHAM, N.C., April 11 -- A day after attorneys for Duke University lacrosse players insisted that DNA results absolved their clients of rape and sexual assault charges, the local district attorney told an emotionally charged community forum at North Carolina Central University that he was pushing ahead with the case.

"I assure you by my presence here that this case is not over," said District Attorney Mike Nifong, appearing on a panel with Durham's mayor, a city councilman and representatives of student governments at Duke and NCCU. The 27-year-old woman who has charged that she was raped, choked, beaten and sodomized at a spring-break party attended by lacrosse team members is a part-time NCCU student.

Nifong told the gathering that not all of the DNA tests are in and that the woman has said she can identify her alleged attackers.

"The fact is that any time you have a victim who can identify an assailant, then what you have is a case that the judge must put to a jury," Nifong said. "Which means that in this situation, I would expect that a jury would get to evaluate the evidence."

At a hastily arranged news conference Monday, attorneys hired by the players insisted that DNA tests supported what lacrosse team members had been saying all along: that no rape or sexual assault occurred at the March 13 party in the off-campus house occupied by lacrosse team captains and attended by as many as 30 team members. On Tuesday, the players' attorneys said they were aware that a second level of DNA tests is being conducted by a private lab at nearby Research Triangle Park that is capable of more sophisticated analysis than that done by North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation. Results are expected in three to five days.

"It was negative last week. It's going to be negative next week," said Kerry Sutton, an attorney for one of the co-captains.

But skepticism was deep-seated and widespread among the roughly 400 students, faculty and community members who attended Tuesday's forum in the gymnasium of Durham's historically black university. Some suggested the analysis was botched; others wondered if the tests had been tampered with. Nifong noted that simply because tests hadn't indicated the presence of lacrosse players' DNA didn't mean that no sexual assault had occurred. "It just means," Nifong said, "nothing was left behind."

Many voiced concerns about issues of race and class in this southern city of 210,000, where the population is almost evenly divided between black and white.

"They're trying to do to this girl what they did with that other girl," said James Fields, 81, alluding to an alleged rape of an NCCU student in 2001. "They'll try to degrade her any way they can."

No charges have been filed in this case. Nifong may do so in the coming days or refer the matter to a grand jury.

Fields, a Durham photographer, said he would like to see Nifong "pursue this case to the max."

Several expressed their belief that if the races were reversed -- if, for example, a white woman accused NCCU's basketball players of rape -- justice would have been more swift.

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