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Former Duke Lacrosse Players Can Continue Suit, Judge Says

Three former Duke University lacrosse players, falsely accused of rape in a case that cost a district attorney his law license, can move forward with part of their claims against the former prosecutor and the city of Durham, North Carolina, a judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr., in a ruling today, refused to dismiss the former students’ claims that their constitutional rights were violated through malicious prosecution, concealment of evidence and fabrication of false evidence. The judge dismissed their separate conspiracy claim and their intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

“The intentional use of false or misleading evidence before a grand jury to obtain an indictment and arrest without probable cause is exactly the type of unreasonable search and seizure that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect against,” the judge said.

The players in October 2007 sued Mike Nifong, the former prosecutor, the city, police officers and lab personnel in federal court in Durham, calling the case “one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history,” according to their complaint.

James Craven III, a lawyer for Nifong, and Reginald Gillespie Jr., a lawyer for the city, didn’t immediately return calls to their offices after regular business hours.

Stripper’s Accusation

The prosecution of players David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann began with a stripper’s accusation that she was attacked after she danced at a team party in 2006. The authorities mishandled the investigation and withheld evidence that supported the athletes’ denials, the three men said in their complaint.

The athletes claim the officials violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which requires probable cause to issue warrants, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of law. They used a law that lets people sue public officials in federal court for violating their constitutional rights.

The players have asked the court for unspecified damages and for a monitor to be appointed to oversee the Durham police for 10 years. Duke is located in Durham.

Nifong was running for re-election in March 2006 when the dancer, a black woman named Crystal Mangum, then 27, reported that she was raped by white team members at a party in a rented house where she went to perform.

Photo Lineups

The players were arrested and indicted on charges that could have sent them to prison for as long as 20 years. The arrests were based partly on photo lineups criticized by defense lawyers because they contained only pictures of team members.

In March 2006, the district attorney conducted almost 100 media interviews in which he said he had “no doubt” that three members of the team had engaged in a vicious, racially motivated rape, according to the complaint. The players’ lawyers said the district attorney was using the woman’s false allegations to win the election.

During a Dec. 15, 2006, court hearing, the director of the DNA lab Nifong used admitted he and the prosecutor agreed to withhold evidence that probably would show that none of the team members raped the woman.

Nifong dropped the rape charges, leaving accusations of first-degree sex offense and first-degree kidnapping.

‘Rush to Accuse’

State Attorney General Roy Cooper took over the case in January 2007 and dropped the charges that April. The players were caught in a “tragic rush to accuse,” and no crime occurred, Cooper said.

Nifong was removed from the practice of law in 2007 for unethical conduct in the investigation.

He argued that the complaint failed to state a claim against him and that he was immune from the suit because he acted in his official capacity as a prosecutor.

The city also argued it was immune from liability. The athletes’ lawyers were using “novel legal theories” to “impose on Durham taxpayers untold millions of dollars in damages for plaintiffs who were publicly exonerated and never spent a moment in jail,” its lawyers wrote in a January 2008 court filing.

The city’s lawyers said Nifong worked for the state, not the city.

Beaty today also upheld and dismissed various counts in two separate lawsuits filed by other members of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team.

The case is Evans v. Durham, 07-00739, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Durham).

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