At Duke, the Case of the "Rogue D.A."

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Gerry Broome / AP

Former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong sits in a courtroom at the Durham County Judicial Building in Durham, North Carolina.

The Duke lacrosse rape case ended the way it began, with anger, bitterness and recriminations of wrongdoing that cast a cloud on whether the justice system can function fairly in our society. But this time, the emotions were directed at one man, instead of three college athletes.

That one person, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, was nowhere to be seen at the two press conferences on Wednesday that attracted national media and celebrity journalists. The rainy day in North Carolina started out badly for Nifong, who removed himself from the case in January, and then it got worse.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper stood in front of a packed room of reporters to announce that the case against three Duke lacrosse players who had been charged with rape was over. Not only had Cooper's investigation found little evidence to proceed with a case against the players, but he described them with one word almost never used in a criminal case: "innocent." Cooper had taken over the case recently after the North Carolina Bar Association filed ethics charges against Nifong for possibly withholding exculpatory evidence and making inflammatory statements about the case. Cooper called Nifong's management of the case a "rush to accuse." He added, "I'm concerned that statements were made publicly about things that turned out not to be true. I think it's appropriate that the North Carolina Bar Association is looking at these ethics." (On Thursday, the Associated Press reported, Nifong released a statement that read, "To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students that were wrongly accused.")

Cooper dismissed the remaining charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against David Evans, Reade Seligmannn, and Colin Finnerty. He said that Nifong pushed forward in this case unchecked. "There were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado." When asked how the events in the DA's office made North Carolina's judicial system look, Cooper said pointedly, "Any state in the country including the federal government can have a rogue prosecutor."

He also told the crowd of reporters that the attorney general's office would not be filing any charges against exotic dancer Crystal Gail Mangum, the accuser in the case, explaining sympathetically that "I think that she may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling." He added, "And in reviewing the whole history, there are records under seal that I'm not going to talk about but we believe that it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges and we have made that decision."

Mangum's aunt, Jennie Pettiford, defended her niece. "They did something to her because she told me and she wouldn't lie to me." She told TIME that Mangum, who gave birth to a girl in January, has been suffering financially as a result of the case. "All that mess she got into hurt her because she can't find a job," says Pettiford, who last saw her niece a couple of weeks ago. "I don't think she's working."

The attorney general's announcement was only act one. The second act started at the Sheraton Hotel shortly afterward in downtown Raleigh, where the families of the former defendants would be speaking. In a large ballroom on the third floor of the lavish hotel, a throng of young athletes marched in to stand in the back and waited for the news conference to begin. They were all student athletes from Duke University, representatives of the men's and women's lacrosse teams. The boys wore the traditional blue blazers and khaki pants of prep school uniforms, and the girls wore blue rubber wristbands with the word "innocent" inscribed on them in white. When the attorneys and former defendants and their families walked onto the stage, a soft cheer went up from the supporters. Joseph Cheshire, the attorney for David Evans and lead attorney for the team of lawyers hired by the three wealthy families, then took his swing at Nifong: "The Duke lacrosse case was prosecuted by a man who had not a care in the world about justice, but only himself and his personal agenda."

Each of the young men took their turn to thank their families for their unwavering support, all considering themselves lucky that their families had the means to take on a prosecutor like Nifong. Reade Seligmann, the tallest and broadest of the three players, put it this way: "This entire experience has opened my eyes to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever I can't imagine what they do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves."

"One of the things that has made me so angry in this case," said Chesire, "is the way this man Mike Nifong appealed to the racial divide and stirred up this community." That anger will express itself in the coming weeks as civil actions are considered against everyone involved in the case: Nifong, Durham County, the state, the Durham police and even Duke University. According to Cheshire, they are considering all their options.

With reporting by Siobhan Morrissey/Miami