Settlement talks underway in Duke lacrosse case

Mar. 14, 2014 @ 05:56 PM

Lawyers told a federal judge on Friday that they’re working on a deal to settle the first of the lawsuits against the city spawned by the Duke lacrosse case.

Talks occurred as recently as Thursday, and may bear fruit in the next few weeks, they said.

“We feel we’re close, but not quite there,” said Chris Manning, an attorney who represents David Evans, a co-captain of Duke University’s 2005-06 men’s lacrosse team.

Manning was addressing U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty Jr., who’d preside over any trial of the remaining two lawsuits triggered by the abortive prosecution in 2006 of Evans and two other lacrosse players on what turned out to be a false charge of rape.

One of the city’s lawyers, Reggie Gillespie, joined Manning in confirming talks he said “could be dispositive” of the initial lawsuit “regarding the city defendants.”

Evans and two other players indicted in 2006, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, sued the city, its police and former District Attorney Mike Nifong after their exoneration a year later.

They allege city officials and Nifong conspired to frame them, violating their civil rights along the way.

A federal appeals court late in 2012 threw out the players’ civil-rights claims, but allowed them to continue a malicious-prosecution case against two detectives, Nifong and Linwood Wilson, a former staff investigator for Nifong.

The lawyers traveled to Winston-Salem on Friday for a conference requested by Beaty. At its start, he told them he’d wanted to “see where we are” following the 2012 appellate court ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection last year of the players’ bid to resurrect their civil-rights claims.

The discussion also covered a second lawsuit, one filed in 2007 by three unindicted players represented by Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand that targets Duke University and the Duke University Health System, along with the city and its police.

And on the second case, there were fewer hints of a settlement. Ekstrand said some talks have occurred, but a lawyer for Duke Health said mediation with his clients reached an impasse.

Manning, handling the morning’s presentation for Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann, told Beaty that lawyers wanted a 30- to 45-day postponement of the proceedings to buy time for more talks.

He also said it’s possible the various sides, if they can’t make a deal on their own, will ask Beaty or another judge to preside over a formal settlement conference to help move things along.

Beaty responded with a 60-day postponement, specifying that he and the attorneys should continue to work on pre-trial motions.

He also said he wants to resolve the cases this year.

Wilson, the only plaintiff or defendant in the lawsuits to attend Friday’s conference, told Beaty he agrees on that.

“It’s been seven years,” said Wilson, who’s acted as his own lawyer. “We need to get it on.”

It wasn’t clear Friday whether a settlement of the Evans/Finnerty/Seligmann lawsuit would also cover Nifong. The former DA’s lawyer, Jim Craven, complained of feeling left out.

“I’m intrigued by the fact discussions are going on,” he said after Manning and Gillespie disclosed the talks. “My phone has not rung yet.”

Nifong isn’t a target of the lawsuit from Ekstrand’s clients.

The details of any settlement that pertain to the city will be public, as state law bars local governments from agreeing to terms-undisclosed deals in civil litigation except in medical-malpractice cases.

Perhaps coincidentally, Friday’s conference occurred eight years to the day an escort-service stripper, Crystal Mangum, triggered the lacrosse prosecution by telling authorities she’d been raped at a team party.

Beaty initially wanted to hold the conference in January, but lawyers for the players begged off, citing scheduling conflicts. They asked him to reschedule to one of two days this week, Friday being the second of the options they provided.

A third lawsuit, filed in 2008 by 38 unindicted players, already ended. That group first settled with Duke, and then abandoned its claims against city officials after the Supreme Court’s decision.