Judge dismisses lacrosse claims against DA’s investigator
A federal trial judge has ruled an investigator employed by former District Attorney Mike Nifong can’t be targeted in what’s left of one of the civil rights lawsuits spawned by the Duke lacrosse case.
U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty Jr. on Thursday dismissed claims of obstruction of justice and false public statements 38 former Duke lacrosse players had lodged in 2008 against one-time investigator Linwood Wilson.
Beaty based the decision on a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from last year that dismissed similar claims against Durham police.
He noted that lawyers for the 38 players conceded in January the appellate court ruling on its face means “they cannot succeed” in targeting Wilson.
The players nonetheless wanted Beaty to hold off on dismissing the claims because two other groups of former players have appealed the 4th Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Beaty refused, noting that the 38 hadn’t joined the other players in seeking Supreme Court intervention.
“This court finds no reason to ignore the 4th Circuit’s mandate and hold this matter in abeyance based only on speculation as to what the Supreme Court may or may not do in another case at some point in the future,” he said.
Beaty also directed lawyers for the 38 to file a “status report” by Aug. 29 that explains what they intend to do with the one allegation that remains from what started out as a 32-count lawsuit.
It targets the city government and invokes a catch-all provision of the North Carolina constitution that guarantees the state’s residents equal protection under the law.
The provision often figures in civil rights lawsuits filed in North Carolina as a fallback if, as the 4th Circuit did in this case, the courts reject claims anchored in federal law.
The 38 players were caught up in the lacrosse case in March 2006 after stripper Crystal Mangum falsely claimed she’d been raped at a party thrown by Duke’s 2005-06 men’s lacrosse team.
They were investigated by police but, unlike three of their teammates, never charged.
The three who were charged with rape but later exonerated, David Evans, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, have asked the Supreme Court to reinstate their federal claims against the city. The 4th Circuit allowed them to pursue only a common-law malicious-prosecution claim against two detectives.
One other group of three players, represented by Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand, has also sought Supreme Court intervention. Like the group of 38, the 4th Circuit allowed them only to continue the catch-all equal-protection claim against the city.
Ekstrand’s clients are also pursuing legal action against Duke University. The 38-man group had also sued Duke but settled with it in February; Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann settled with Duke in 2007 before filing their lawsuit against the city.
Wilson’s role in the 2006 prosecution was to check warrants and question witnesses for Nifong, on his own and not necessarily with police. His most notable act, late in 2006, was an interview with Mangum that saw the accuser change substantially her account of the ill-fated party.
Rather than hiring a lawyer, Wilson has represented himself in the subsequent litigation over the case. He is not out of the woods, despite Friday’s ruling, as he remains a defendant in both of the other lawsuits.