Prosecutors Drop Duke Rape Counts

By Peter Whoriskey and Sylvia Adcock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 23, 2006

Prosecutors dropped rape charges yesterday against three Duke University lacrosse players accused of assaulting an exotic dancer at a team party, saying in court documents that although the accuser "initially believed" she had been raped, she can no longer testify with certainty about crucial aspects of the alleged assault.

The dismissal of the rape charges eliminates a serious accusation facing the players but leaves the trio facing kidnapping and sexual-offense counts, which carry significant prison terms.

With no DNA linking any members of the lacrosse team to the victim, defense lawyers said District Attorney Michael B. Nifong should go further and dismiss the case.

"End this suffering . . . end this case -- because there is no case to bring," said Wade Smith, an attorney for Collin Finnerty, one of the three Duke students charged.

In a statement, Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead joined in the growing criticism of Nifong and called for the prosecutor to recuse himself from the case. He said Nifong's decision "must call into question the validity of the remaining charges."

The incident at the lacrosse team's party on March 13 touched off an emotional debate about race and class in Durham, N.C., a city evenly divided between blacks and whites, and around the nation. It pitted a black woman who attended a small, largely black school and worked part time as an exotic dancer against the largely white lacrosse team at one of the nation's most prestigious and expensive private universities.

Nifong heightened racial tensions with some of his early comments about the players, labeling them "rapists" and "racists," but as the months have passed, increasing attention has fallen on the district attorney's reliance on the accuser's statements. Nifong did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

The woman recanted in an interview with a prosecutor's investigator Thursday, saying she was no longer sure that "a penis was the body part that penetrated her vagina," according to Nifong's filing. That statement contradicts others she had repeatedly made, defense attorneys said.

Under state law, penetration with anything other than a penis is not rape. It is not clear from the filing what constitutes the sexual-offense charge.

The dismissal of the rape charges against the three defendants -- Reade Seligmann, 20, of Essex Fells, N.J.; co-captain David Evans, 23, of Bethesda; and Finnerty, 19, of Garden City, N.Y. -- underscores a dramatic shift in the perception of the highly publicized case.

A lack of DNA evidence, mistakes in the way a photo lineup was used to identify team members and the accuser's shifting story have led to a chorus of people calling for all charges to be dropped -- or for Nifong to explain why they should be pursued.

Defense attorneys said they were "enormously frustrated" that some charges remain, suggesting that if the accuser cannot remember with any certainty whether she was raped, her memory cannot support the remaining charges.

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