GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) -- Three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape filed a federal lawsuit Friday against disgraced prosecutor Mike Nifong, the city of Durham and the police detectives who handled the investigation.
The lawsuit calls the criminal case against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys fees and numerous reforms to the way the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.
The lawsuit was filed about a month after city officials met with lawyers for the families seeking a $30 million settlement and several legal reforms, two sources close to the case have told The Associated Press. The attorneys gave the city a month to respond or face a civil rights lawsuit.
"This is not about money for the boys, though obviously they deserve compensation," said Richard D. Emery, a civil rights attorney representing Seligmann. "This is about sending a message to public officials who only get the message when they have to pay the money."
In April, more than a year after a woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party told police she was raped, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the former players innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."
Nifong did not immediately return a message seeking comment left at his home Friday morning. Durham spokeswoman Beverly B. Thompson said the city would defend claims against its employees, but not Nifong, who held a state office.
"We understand that the complaint asserts claims against the city and its employees that appear to be based on untested and unproven legal theories," Thompson said.
The lawsuit asserts that the defendants conspired to keep alive a pitifully weak case as Nifong faced a tightly contested election in the Democratic primary for district attorney. Nifong was later disbarred for numerous ethics violations, resigned from office and spent a night in jail after a judge held him criminal contempt of court for lying about the DNA evidence.
It names Nifong and 13 other defendants, including former police chief Steven Chalmers, police investigators Benjamin Himan and Mark Gottlieb, and Brian Meehan -- the director of DNA Security Inc., which conducted the DNA testing that proved key to unraveling the case. It also names the Meehan's lab as a defendant, but does not name the accuser.
Defendants withheld evidence, intimidated witnesses, made public statements to smear the lacrosse players and used a photo lineup that featured only lacrosse players so that the accuser would name the players as her attackers, the lawsuit said.
Among other reforms, the lacrosse players want an independent committee to publicly review complaints of police misconduct. They also want improved police training and for Meehan and his lab to be banned from providing reports or expert testimony in a court proceeding for a decade.
The monitor sought by the players would have the power to hire, fire and promote within the department, including the chief of police.
The financial compensation and legal reforms requested are not unusual in civil rights lawsuits, though the 150-page complaint is more comprehensive than most, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
"They really do feel like they need to be vindicated and money won't do it," Tobias said. "They had to spend a year vindicating themselves. I can understand how they would want to have full relief, especially reforming the system if possible."
Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans were indicted by a Durham County grand jury last year on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. From the outset, the players strongly maintained their innocence, and as the case dragged on through the end of 2006, it became clear the charges had no merit.
Meehan told Nifong by April 2006 that testing had found genetic material from several men -- though none from any lacrosse player -- in the accuser's underwear and body. That information was not included in a report summarizing the lab's findings, and Nifong didn't provide it to defense attorneys until October.
Nifong dropped the rape charges in December after the accuser changed a key detail in her story. In dropping the charges, Cooper said the state's investigation found nothing to corroborate the accuser's story, leading his staff to "the conclusion that no attack occurred."
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