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Federal suit filed in Duke rape case

Falsely accused seek damages

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Three former Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape filed a sweeping federal lawsuit yesterday that could return the sensational case to a courtroom, suing 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."

It seeks unspecified damages and numerous reforms to the way the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations - including the appointment of a monitor who would have the power to hire, fire, and promote department employees, including the chief, for 10 years.

The suit was filed about a month after city officials met with lawyers for the families seeking a $30 million settlement and several legal reforms, two people close to the case said.

Apparently unable, or unwilling, to reach a deal with the families, the city pledged yesterday to defend itself and its employees, but not Nifong, who held a state office, or the private DNA testing lab he hired.

City spokeswoman Beverly B. Thompson said the players' complaint "asserts claims against the city and its employees that appear to be based on untested and unproven legal theories."

Should the case go to trial, it would extend a legal debacle that began in March 2006, when a woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party told police that she had been raped.

The criminal side of the case largely ended in April, when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the three players innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."

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."

In the months that followed, the state bar stripped Nifong of his law license, concluding he relentlessly pursued a flawed case for political gain.

He resigned as Durham County's district attorney and spent a night in jail last month after a judge held him in criminal contempt of court for lying about DNA evidence.

Nifong did not return a message yesterday seeking comment.

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