Crime & Courts

City of Durham settles long-running lawsuit with former Duke lacrosse players

Three Duke University lacrosse players and the City of Durham settled a long-running lawsuit Friday, closing another chapter in a case that exposed flaws in the Durham justice system and ended a district attorney’s legal career.

Under terms of the settlement, the three players – Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans – will receive no money. At their request, the city will make a $50,000 grant to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Mike Nifong, the disbarred and disgraced former district attorney, also agreed to give the commission $1,000, settling the case against him, according to one of the attorneys representing the players.

“It was an honor and a surprise to be chosen to receive this grant,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the commission. “We will put the money in a special fund, and it will be used for the investigation of innocence claims. We are pleased that the important work of the Innocence Inquiry Commission was recognized in this way.”

The Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first of its kind in the nation, was created in 2006 after several high-profile cases of wrongful convictions raised questions about the criminal justice system. Though the wrongfully convicted can appeal their verdicts, their claims generally are limited to technical problems at the trial level, not claims of innocence. But the commission has legal authority and powers to delve into such claims, then put them before a panel of judges that can grant immediate freedom.

To date, the commission has helped win exonerations for four people. A hearing is set to begin next month about a 39-year-old homicide case.

The Duke lacrosse case never went to the commission.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were charged in 2006 with sexually assaulting Crystal Mangum, an exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party on March 13, 2006.

Nifong, Durham’s district attorney at the time, proceeded with prosecuting a case that fell apart as Mangum changed her story many times.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper ultimately dropped all charges against the players and declared them innocent after an investigation by one of his special prosecutors.

Nifong was forced to resign as district attorney and later stripped of his law license because of his actions in the case.

Duke settlement

Duke University, which ended the 2006 lacrosse season early after the rape allegations, previously settled with the three wrongfully accused players. Though the settlement has never been made public, Internal Revenue Service lien documents filed against one of the players have led tax attorneys and others to estimate the total payment might have topped $50 million.

The players sued the city, the police department, other officers and Nifong in 2007, pursuing federal civil rights claims.

The case was stalled in federal court after attorneys representing the defendants sought a dismissal of the lawsuit. They also got the judge to agree that while he weighed that option and certain issues of law were appealed to higher courts, the defendants would be free from sitting for sworn depositions and exchanging evidence.

‘Behind us’

Richard Emery, the New York lawyer who represented Seligmann in the civil suit, said under the terms of the settlement he could not talk about specifics of the case.

“We’re gratified to have it behind us and that once again the innocence of the boys, the young men now, has been reaffirmed,” Emery said Friday.

The city issued a statement: “As the City has maintained throughout, it believes that its police officers had an obligation to investigate the allegations made by Crystal Mangum in 2006 and that no police officer nor any other City employee engaged in improper conduct. The former District Attorney, Mike Nifong, was not a City employee, and Mr. Nifong was subsequently convicted of criminal contempt and disbarred for his actions.”