DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - Disgraced former prosecutor Mike Nifong acknowledged Thursday there is "no credible evidence" that three Duke lacrosse players committed any of the crimes he accused them of more than a year ago, offering for the first time a complete and unqualified apology.
"We all need to heal," Nifong said. "It is my hope we can start this process today."
Nifong's apology came as a judge began considering whether to hold the former Durham County district attorney in criminal contempt of court for his handling of the case.
Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III has already concluded there is probable cause to believe Nifong "willfully and intentionally made false statements of material fact" to the court during a hearing in the case last fall. If he finds Nifong in contempt after an Aug. 30 hearing, the now-disbarred former prosecutor could face up to 30 days in jail.
The case started with a woman's allegations that she was raped at a March 2006 lacrosse team party where she was hired as a stripper. Nifong won indictments against three team members, but the charges were later dropped, and state Attorney General Roy Cooper went a step farther by declaring the three men innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."
On Thursday, Nifong apologized.
"I agree with the attorney general's statement that there is no credible evidence that Mr. Seligmann, Mr. Finnerty or Mr. Evans committed any of the crimes for which they were indicted - or any other crimes against (the accuser) - during the party," Nifong said. He declined to comment further after the hearing, as did his attorneys.
Attorneys for the three falsely accused players, who had previously rejected Nifong's attempts to make amends, accepted his apology. None of the three players was in court.
"For many months, we have sought a real and meaningful apology from Mr. Nifong, for the pain he has caused these families and these young men, the entire Duke lacrosse team, the state of North Carolina and others," said attorney Joseph Cheshire.
"We are very appreciative that Mr. Nifong decided to do that today," he said. "We don't deny it was a difficult thing."
The men's attorneys had asked Smith to hold Nifong in contempt for telling the court he had provided the defense complete results from DNA testing when he had not.
Nifong learned in April 2006 the laboratory found genetic material from multiple males on and about the accuser, but none from the lacrosse players. He didn't provide that information to the defense until October, and only then in the form of nearly 2,000 pages of raw DNA test data.
A disciplinary hearing committee of the state bar stripped Nifong of his law license last month after finding he had committed more than two dozen violations of the state's rules of professional conduct during the case.
Two of the wrongly accused men, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, declined invitations to return to Duke; Finnerty plans to attend Loyola of Maryland this fall, and Seligmann plans to attend Brown University. The third, Dave Evans, graduated the day before he was indicted.