Before Roy Cooper strode to the podium in the RBC Center Wednesday, one TV pundit confidently predicted that one word no one was going to hear was "innocent." It didn't take long for Cooper to dispel that notion. By the time he was finished, not only had he declared Reide Seligmann, Colin Finnerty, and Dave Evans innocent and dismissed all charges, he effectively put an end to Mike Nifong's career. Having the Attorney General dismiss the case is one thing. Having him call you a rogue prosecutor and propose a law to control people like you is quite another. Wednesday could not have been a worse day for Mike Nifong.
By contrast, it could not have been much better for the accused. The Attorney General:
"Good afternoon, everyone.
"On Jan. 13 of this year, I accepted the request of the Durham district attorney to take over three Durham cases. At the time, I promised a fresh and thorough review of the facts and a decision on the best way to proceed. I also said that we would have our eyes wide open to the evidence, but that we would have blinders on for all other distractions. We've done all of these things.
"During the past 12 weeks, our lawyers and investigators have reviewed the remaining allegations of sexual assault and kidnapping that resulted from a party on March 13, 2006, in Durham, N.C.
"We have carefully reviewed the evidence collected by the Durham County prosecutor's office and the Durham Police Department. We have also conducted our own interviews and evidence gathering. Our attorneys and SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) agents have interviewed numerous people who were at the party, DNA and other experts, the Durham County district attorney, Durham police officers, defense attorneys and the accusing witness on several occasions. We have reviewed statements given over the past year, photographs, records and other evidence.
"The result of our review and investigation shows clearly that there is insufficient evidence to proceed on any of the charges. Today we are filing notices of dismissal for all charges against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans.
"The result is that these cases are over, and no more criminal proceedings will occur.
"We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations. 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.
"We approached this case with the understanding that rape and sexual assault victims often have some inconsistencies in their accounts of a traumatic event. However, in this case, the inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house that night.
"The prosecuting witness in this case responded to questions and offered information. She did want to move forward with the prosecution.
"However, the contradictions in her many versions of what occurred and the conflicts between what she said occurred and other evidence, like photographs and phone records, could not be rectified.
"Our investigation shows that:
- The eyewitness identification procedures were faulty and unreliable.
- No DNA confirms the accuser's story.
- No other witness confirms her story.
- Other evidence contradicts her story.
- She contradicts herself.
"Next week, we'll be providing a written summary of the important factual findings and some of the specific contradictions that have led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred.
"In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked. There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado. And in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly. Regardless of the reasons this case was pushed forward, the result was wrong. Today, we need to learn from this and keep it from happening again to anybody.
"Now, we have good district attorneys in North Carolina who are both tough and fair. And we need these forceful, independent prosecutors to put criminals away and protect the public. But we also need checks and balances to protect the innocent. This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor. What has been learned here is that the internal checks on a criminal chargeâsworn statements, reasonable grounds, proper suspect photo lineups, accurate and fair discoveryâall are critically important.
"Therefore, I propose a law that the North Carolina Supreme Court have the authority to remove a case from a prosecutor in limited circumstances. This would give the courts a new tool to deal with a prosecutor who needs to step away from a case where justice demands.
"I want to thank everyone in the North Carolina Department of Justice. I want to thank our investigators, our SBI agents and especially attorneys Jim Coman and Mary Winstead for their hard work in this matter."
Not all that long after Cooper's extraordinary comments drew to a close, the defense team had a press conference. Joseph Cheshire, modestly calling himself "the mouth," distributed credit to a great many people, including, of course, the late Kirk Osborn.
After he spoke, all three former players spoke as well. Dave Evans, who upon indictment bravely predicted that the case would be proved to be a collection of fantastic lies was proven to be a prophet: it was exactly so. His comments were again spot-on, and he didn't shy away from his justified anger, either.
But perhaps Seligmann's comments were the most important. As James Coleman has said repeatedly, as we have said less eloquently, the danger that a guy like Nifong poses is much more serious for those who can't afford to defend themselves. Seligmann:
"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If it is possible for law enforcement officials to systematically railroad us with no evidence whatsoever, it is frightening to think what they could do to those who do not to have the resources to defend themselves. So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes, or creating political and racial conflicts, we must all take a step back from this case and learn from it. This tragedy has revealed that our society has lost site of the core principle of our legal system, the presumption of innocence.
"For everyone who chose to speak out against us before the facts were known, I sincerely hope that you are never put in a position where you experience the same pain and heartache that you have caused our families. While your hurtful words and outrageous lies will forever be associated with this tragedy, everyone will always remember that we told the truth, and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, âtruth is the best vindication against slanderâ. If our case can bring to light the some of the flaws in our judicial system as well as discourage people from rushing to judgment, than the hardships we have endured over this past year will not have been in vain."
Two of the players also acknowledged an extraordinary contribution from someone who was not paid and who had no reason to help them. Yet no one, outside of their attorneys, did more to expose the disgraceful nature of the prosecution than K.C. Johnson.
We have heard some very sharp criticisms of Johnson. His character and motives have been questioned. There were assumptions by some that he had an agenda; others said much sharper things.
But he made his motivation very clear: he was outraged by the reaction amongst Duke's faculty and felt it tended to injure his profession. So he spoke up.
We're sure that as the families gradually became aware of his extraordinary vigilance and vigor, they had to be astonished at what he brought to the table. He has given them a gift which they could never repay. On a daily basis, he has explained the inconsistencies in the case and picked it apart bit by patient bit, and his extraordinary output guaranteed that the case could not be ignored or forgotten. He has been amazing, and we count ourselves blessed to have been witness to his dogged pursuit of the truth.
All in all, a splendid day of vindication for the players and their families. But still...
Cheshire drew a distinction between relief and anger, and it's a smart distinction. It's obviously good news, and important that the rape of justice which Mike Nifong attempted has been stopped. But these young men were terribly abused by the legal system and lost more than a year of their lives. Their parents have been bankrupted. And for nothing.
There is a righteous anger to follow, and the players and their families are entitled to it. What happened to them could have happened to anyone. And given the arrogant way in which it did happen, we're guessing they weren't the first to be treated this way.