RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina's top prosecutor dropped all charges Wednesday against the three former Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a party, saying the athletes were innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse" by an overreaching district attorney.
"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 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."
"I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to a lot of people," Cooper said in a news conference held before dozens of reporters in the press room at the arena where Raleigh's NHL team plays.
At an often-bitter, I-told-you-so news conference with the three young men and their families, defense attorney Joe Cheshire accused the media of portraying the athletes as criminals, and said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved."
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure," said one of cleared defendants, David Evans, his voice breaking at one point. "We're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed, the facts don't change."
He added: "I'm excited to get on with my life. It's been a long year, longer than you could ever imagine. ... But I hope these allegations don't come to define me."
Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said before Cooper's announcement that Nifong has "complete confidence in the attorney general's office to make the appropriate decision."
Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted in the bathroom at an off-campus house during a team party where she had been hired to perform. The rape charges were later dropped; until Wednesday, the other charges remained.
The case stirred furious debate over race, class and the privileged status of college athletes, and heightened long-standing tensions in Durham between its large working-class black population and the mostly white, mostly affluent students at the private, elite university.
The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University; all three Duke players are white.
The attorney general said the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the stripper's story, no other witness corroborated it, and the woman contradicted herself.
"Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges," Cooper said. He said the charges resulted from a "tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations."
Cooper offered no explanation for why the stripper told such a story and would not discuss her mental health or other medical history. However, he said no charges will be brought against her, saying she "may actually believe" the many different stories she told.
"We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges," he said.
The accuser's whereabouts were not immediately known.
Portraying Nifong as a "rogue prosecutor," Cooper called for the passage of a law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove a district attorney where justice demands it.
"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," he said.
Cooper declined to say whether he believes Nifong should be disbarred, saying it would not be fair to pass judgment before he goes on trial before the state bar in June.
At the news conference with his former teammates, Finnerty said: "Knowing I had the truth on my side was really the most comforting thing at all throughout this last year."
Seligmann thanked his lawyers for sparing him from 30 years in prison for a "hoax" and complained that society has lost sight of the presumption of innocence. "This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice," he said.
The case was troubled almost from the start. DNA failed to connect any of the athletes to the 28-year-old stripper. One of the athletes claimed to have ATM receipts and time-stamped photos that provided an alibi. It was also learned that the stripper had leveled similar gang-rape allegations a decade ago, and no charges resulted.
Then, in December, Nifong dropped the rape charges after the woman said she was no longer certain she was penetrated.
Nifong came under furious criticism from the community, the university and other members of the bar for pressing ahead with a case that they said seemed pitifully weak.
The district attorney withdrew from the case in January after the North Carolina bar charged him with making misleading and inflammatory comments to the media about the athletes under suspicion. The bar later added more serious charges of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court.
Among other things, Nifong called the athletes "a bunch of hooligans" and flatly declared DNA evidence would identify the guilty. He was also accused of withholding the results of lab tests that found DNA from several men - none of them lacrosse team members - on the accuser's underwear and body.
Duke suspended Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., after their arrest. Both were invited to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted.
In the uproar over the allegations, Duke canceled the rest of the team's 2006 season, the lacrosse coach was fired, and a schism opened up on the faculty between those who supported the athletes and those who accused them of getting away with loutish frat-boy behavior for too long.