Settlement reached in Duke lacrosse lawsuit

May. 16, 2014 @ 06:21 PM

City officials have settled one of the remaining lawsuits spawned by the Duke lacrosse case, agreeing as a condition of the deal to make a one-time grant of $50,000 to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

The grant was accompanied by a statement, issued Friday morning, that officials agree with North Carolina’s attorney general that 2005-06 Duke men’s lacrosse players David Evans, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann “were innocent” of the rape charges they faced after a team party in 2006.

Filings in federal court confirmed the lawsuit’s end, Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann acting also to dismiss claims against former District Attorney Mike Nifong and Nifong’s staff investigator, Linwood Wilson.

Seligmann’s lawyer, Richard Emery, said his client “has been looking forward for a long time to going forward with his life without this cropping up in newspapers and elsewhere.”

Emery added that the players are “gratified this result came out and the city has reaffirmed [their] innocence.”

The two sides ended the case Thursday evening, a day before they were to go to Winston-Salem for a meeting with U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty Jr., the trial judge who’s presided over the lacrosse litigation.

There was no surprise in the move, the lawyers involved having told Beaty in March that they were negotiating a deal.

City Council members had to approve the settlement’s terms and likely did so on April 24, when City Attorney Patrick Baker asked them for a closed-door consultation about the case.

Thursday’s settlement means there’s only one lacrosse-case lawsuit still pending against the city. It’s being pursued by three unindicted players represented by Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand.

A 38-man group of unindicted players dropped the third of the lawsuits last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appellate decision that scrapped all the players’ federal civil-rights claims against the city.

The decision, a 2012 ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, allowed Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann to pursue only a common-law, malicious-prosecution allegation against the two detectives who investigated stripper Crystal Mangum’s claim that she’d been attacked at a team party.

The appeals court also gave all three groups of players the choice of pressing a claim of due-process violations under the state constitution. The 38-player group declined that option; Ekstrand’s clients are pressing ahead.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper exonerated Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann in 2007 after he and his staff determined Mangum’s story didn’t match any of the evidence available to police and prosecutors.

All of the subsequent lawsuits alleged that police had conspired with former District Attorney Mike Nifong to frame the players. The players’ lawyers argued that Mangum’s story was obviously not credible.

The city’s statement on Friday noted that Nifong was a state employee, had been disbarred for his actions in the case and also was convicted of criminal contempt.

Those decisions stemmed in part from the prosecutor’s attempts to hide the fact that DNA testing showed that while Mangum had recently had sex with several men, none were Duke lacrosse players.

But the city in settling the case said it “believes that its police officers had an obligation to investigate the allegations” Mangum made, and that it believes “no police officer nor any other city employee engaged in improper conduct.”

The Innocence Inquiry Commission is a state panel set up to review post-conviction claims that people accused of a crime had been falsely convicted. It began operation in 2007 and within a couple years helped a Raleigh man, Greg Taylor, win exoneration on a murder charge.

Court filings didn’t offer any details about the players’ settlement with Nifong. But Emery said the former prosecutor had agreed to make a $1,000 contribution to the Innocence Inquiry Commission and reaffirm “his statement of [the players] innocence.”

Nifong’s lawyer, Jim Craven, couldn’t be reached for comment or confirmation.

A filing late Friday afternoon dismissed the claims involving Wilson.

“That’s just a walk-away,” Emery said, indicating Wilson’s end of the case was simply being dropped.

The City Council’s decision to give money to the Innocence Inquiry Commission drew criticism Friday from Victoria Peterson, a Mangum and Nifong supporter who’s also a frequent candidate in local elections.

She said that while she was glad the city didn’t give any money to the players, officials should have contributed to a Durham-based group.

“We have organizations in this community, and I’m one, that work to try to get people out of the Durham County Jail,” Peterson said, alluding to a nonprofit she runs.

The city’s statement said officials decided on the donation’s recipient “in consultation” with Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann. Peterson was kicked out of Nifong’s 2007 N.C. State Bar disciplinary hearing after confronting a parent of one of the players.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said the $50,000 would come out of the city’s “risk reduction” fund, a $5.6 million reserve it holds to cover claims payments resulting from litigation or workers-compensation cases.