Supreme Court refuses to intervene in lacrosse case

Federal civil-rights claims by 3 players denied
Oct. 07, 2013 @ 06:20 PM

U.S. Supreme Court justices announced Monday they won’t hear an appeal from three former Duke University lacrosse players who’d hoped to resurrect their federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city.

The decision let stand a December ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that went against former players David Evans, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann and sharply narrowed their litigation.

The players contend police and city officials conspired in 2006 with former District Attorney Mike Nifong to frame them on rape charges, after stripper Crystal Mangum falsely alleged she’d been attacked at a team party.

December’s 4th Circuit ruling, however, allowed the players to pursue only two claims, both grounded in state law.

One is a malicious-prosecution claim against the two Durham Police Department detectives who investigated Mangum’s allegations. The other alleges the city violated the players’ rights under the North Carolina constitution.

Monday’s Supreme Court decision pleased city officials.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg said the city’s outside counsel had “done a tremendous job” in explaining the issues to the three federal courts that have now pondered the case.

“As the city stated from the outset of this litigation, this lawsuit put forward untested and unproven theories of legal liability,” Rehberg said. “The Supreme Court’s denial was not unexpected, but it was still very welcome news this morning.”

There was no comment immediately forthcoming from the players. The Herald-Sun emailed two of their lawyers, Richard Emery and David Rudolf, but hadn’t received a response as of press time Monday.

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann are the three players a grand jury indicted on rape charges in 2006. They were exonerated a year later when N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, stepping in after Nifong was accused of ethics violations, dropped the case for lack of any evidence that Mangum had been attacked.

The 4th Circuit rejected the players’ conspiracy argument on the grounds that Nifong and the grand jury, acting independently of police, had decided there was probable cause to bring charges against them.

The key point, to the city’s lawyers and eventually the 4th Circuit, was that the players allege police fully briefed Nifong on the case’s weaknesses.

Lawyers for the players argued that the Supreme Court should step in because the 4th Circuit had taken too narrow a view of civil-rights law, in essence ignoring the possibility that police worked with Nifong to paper over the weakness of the evidence.

Justices attached no explanation to their decision Monday, a routine move that left legal observers little to go on in unraveling the reasoning behind it, beyond the fact the odds are always against the Supreme Court taking a case.

The justices similarly rejected hundreds of other petitions on Monday. They receive thousands each year but take only a handful of cases.

It’s possible the justices decided that even if they agree with players that a “prosecutor’s actions should not cleanse police misconduct,” they may not have seen it as one where “there was police, as opposed to prosecutorial, misconduct,” said Howard Wasserman, a Florida International University law professor.

Another possibility is that “the justices may have seen this as a case in which the criminal justice system worked,” Wasserman said in an email to The Herald-Sun. “Although [the] three players were indicted, they were exonerated long before trial, never were convicted and never incarcerated.”

Wasserman, who edited a 2010 book on the lacrosse affair called “Institutional Failures,” added in a blog posting that it remains to be seen whether the federal trial judge who’s been handling the case opts to retain jurisdiction over the two remaining state-law claims.

No matter what court handles them, the city will still pay the defense bills of former detectives Mark Gottlieb and Ben Himan, the targets of the malicious-prosecution claim, Rehberg said.

That’s in line with policy that “the city – in all lawsuits, not just these particular ones – does what it can to prevent legal action from having a financial impact on its employees, their spouses or significant others, families and personal assets,” she said.

The only exceptions are when it’s evident a worker’s potential liability stemmed from “actual fraud, corruption” or malice, “impaired judgment produced by self-indulgence” like drug or alcohol use, or from actions “directly contrary to instructions from” superiors or advice from the city attorney’s office, Rehberg said.

“Nothing alleged in any of the Duke lacrosse investigation lawsuits suggests that any of the three disqualifying factors applies to any of the individually named defendants or their actions,” she added. “No city official, including myself, has ever been given information that would suggest any of the three disqualifying factors should disqualify any of the individually named defendants from being defended by the city.”

The Supreme Court is still considering a second review request, from three unindicted former lacrosse players represented by Durham lawyer Bob Ekstrand.

Ekstrand wants it to weigh in on whether the standards North Carolina judges and magistrates use in deciding whether to order DNA sampling of potential suspects are too loose to be constitutional.

His clients, like most of members of Duke’s 2005-06 men’s lacrosse team, were ordered to give samples early in the investigation.