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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Prosecutors dropped all charges Wednesday against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a party, saying the athletes were innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse" by an overreaching district attorney.
"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a damning assessment of Durham County District Mike Nifong's handling of the sensational case.
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation "led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred." "I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to a lot of people," Cooper said. "I think those people ought to consider doing that."
Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted in the bathroom at an off-campus house during a team party where she had been hired to perform.
The allegations at first outraged the city, a faded tobacco capital with a long history of tension between its large working-class black population and Duke, an elite private school where most of the students, including the three lacrosse players, are white. The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University.
But that anger largely shifted to Nifong as his evidence against the three fell apart and questions surfaced about the accuser.
The attorney general said Wednesday that the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the woman's story, no other witness corroborated it, and the woman contradicted herself.
"Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges," Cooper said.
He said the charges resulted from a "tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations."
However, Cooper said no charges will be brought against the accuser, saying she "may actually believe" the many different versions of the stories she has told. "We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges," he said.
Cooper called for the passage of a state law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove a prosecutor "who needs to step away from a case where justice demands."
"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," he said.
Nifong, who was meeting with his attorney Wednesday in Winston-Salem, has been charged by the state bar with ethics violations connected to his handling of the case and could face disbarment.
"Since he recused himself in January and turned the case over to the attorney general's office, he has had no involvement in the investigation," said David Freedman, Nifong's lawyer, speaking before the announcement. "At the time he turned the case over - and now - he has had complete confidence in the attorney general's office to make the appropriate decision."
The 28-year-old woman initially said she was gang-raped and beaten by three white men at the March 13, 2006, party thrown by Duke's highly ranked lacrosse team.
The three players insisted the accusations were "fantastic lies." Another dancer who had been with the woman also questioned if she had been raped, called the allegations "a crock" and said the woman seemed drunk when she tried to drive her home that night. Seligmann also produced ATM receipts, cell phone records and other evidence suggesting he was somewhere else at the time.
In the end, it appeared the case was based only on the testimony of the accuser, whom defense attorneys said had told wildly different versions of the alleged assault.
Nifong's recusal in January put the players' fate in the hands of the North Carolina attorney general, who promised "a fresh and thorough review of the facts."
The North Carolina State Bar charged Nifong with making misleading and inflammatory comments about the athletes under suspicion. It later added more serious offenses of withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court and bar investigators. He stands trial on those charges in June.
Nifong had accused the team of refusing to cooperate, calling them "a bunch of hooligans," and promised DNA evidence would finger the guilty.
His case started to erode when no DNA evidence tied any player to the accuser.
Defense attorneys also attacked a key photo lineup that used only pictures of lacrosse players, and they noted the accuser had claimed a decade earlier that she had been gang-raped but it never led to an arrest. A series of tests Nifong ordered from a private lab found genetic material from several men on the accuser's underwear and body, but none from any member of the Duke lacrosse team, they said.
Duke temporarily suspended Seligmann, 21, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., in the wake of their arrest. Both were invited to return to campus but neither accepted.
Evans, 24, of Bethesda, Md., graduated the day before he was indicted. John Danowski, the former coach at Hofstra who took over the Duke program last summer, has also said that both are welcome to continue playing lacrosse with the Blue Devils. On Wednesday, he moved the team's afternoon practice back so his players could attend a planned defense news conference with their former teammates.