What Really Happened That Night at Duke

The room went dead silent as the North Carolina attorney general, Roy Cooper, began to speak. The three Duke lacrosse players and their families were gathered in front of a TV at the Raleigh Sheraton Hotel to learn how the state would proceed in a criminal investigation that had appalled and titillated the nation for more than a year. Reade Seligmann was praying, and so was Collin Finnerty, heads bent down, bobbing slightly as the attorney general spoke slowly. The families were pretty sure, based on signals from the attorney general's office, that the case would be dropped. But when the families heard the word "innocent," they erupted. "I was hysterically crying," recalls Seligmann, a strapping 21-year-old. "Everybody was hysterically crying. People were swarmed. It was like a pile-on."

The elation could not erase some bitter memories. Finnerty could recall the dread he felt as he peered over his father's shoulder that day in April 2006. His dad, Kevin Finnerty, was writing down what the family's lawyer was telling him on the phone, that Collin—Duke sophomore, gifted student-athlete, seemingly destined for good things in life—had just been charged with rape. Collin wept—his stunned girlfriend, Jessica Hannan, had never seen him cry before—overwhelmed with the realization that he could go to prison for 30 years for a crime he did not commit.

Finnerty, Seligmann and the third duke player charged in the rape case, David Evans, were vindicated last week. The attorney general did not just find "insufficient evidence," as prosecutors usually do when they drop a criminal charge. Cooper declared that the three players were innocent, that no rape had taken place, that a "rogue prosecutor" had overreached and that, "in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."

For the players, listening to Cooper's announcement was like stepping through a looking glass. For many months, they had lived in an alternate universe. There was the "reality" that endlessly replayed on cable TV: that some loutish, vicious, pampered jocks had raped an exotic dancer. Then there was the tawdry but mundane truth: that some foolish and crude college boys had hired two strippers and reaped nothing but shame. For young men accustomed to success, the feeling of helplessness, of powerlessness, was lonely and isolating. It was also maturing.

After the A.G.'s announcement, Finnerty and Seligmann, as well as their parents, some siblings and Finnerty's girlfriend, spoke to NEWSWEEK about the experience. The magazine also obtained the handwritten statements given by Evans and the other two team captains, Daniel Flannery and Matthew Zash, to the Durham police two days after the alleged rape. The statements, never before made public, and interviews with defense attorneys familiar with the evidence, tell the real story of what happened that night.

Evans, a Duke senior, was an old-fashioned Big Man on Campus—co-captain of a lacrosse team in the running for a national championship, a young man with a Wall Street job lined up after graduation. But on this mild night in March he was, in effect, master of ceremonies for a strip show. Though Duke was on spring break, the players had stayed on campus to practice, and they decided they needed a little diversion. Along with his co-captains, Evans had invited the team over to the house on North Buchanan Boulevard to watch a pair of exotic dancers perform.

Strip shows weren't too unusual at Duke. Frats and other teams, male and female, were known to hire dancers to strut and carry on while students drank beer and hooted. Normally, some members of the lacrosse team patronized a strip joint called Teasers Men's Club, but because others were underage or had lost their fake IDs, Evans and his co-captains decided to hold the party at the slightly run-down house that the three young men rented just off campus.

The night didn't go well from the start. After an afternoon and evening of desultory drinking games such as Beer Pong, about 30 players were sprawled on the floor or sitting on a ring of couches arranged around the stage—a ratty, tan carpet. Evans explained to his teammates that he and the other captains had requested white dancers, but that a black woman and a Hispanic woman had shown up. No one seemed to care, according to the statement given to police by Zash. One of the strippers appeared to be intoxicated and had trouble standing up, much less dancing. Halfheartedly, she began kissing the other dancer, Kim Roberts.

Later, when the night was played up as a violent bacchanal, a "Boys Gone Wild" situation, Seligmann would reflect that anyone watching the real thing would have been "bored to tears." At the time, he says, "we didn't know how to react. It was disgusting. I was very uncomfortable and I wasn't the only one." Indeed, in a photo taken by one of the players and obtained by NEWSWEEK, Seligmann appears to be recoiling as he watches the dancers. Other players, dressed in khakis and polo shirts, plastic cups in hand, seem indifferent, chatting with each other or looking around as the two women fumbled and groped.

The performance lasted all of five minutes. One of the players crudely inquired if the dancers had any sex toys. Roberts, the dancer Evans identified as "Hispanic" (she is actually part African-American, part Asian), asked if the player's penis was too small, according to all three captains' police statements. The player then brandished a broomstick and said, "Use this"—or words to that effect. ("My inclination is that there was not any reference to the players' genitalia during their act," says Mark Simeon, Roberts's lawyer. "She didn't seem offended at all about the question of using sex toys. What upset her was the brandishing of a broomstick.")

The exchange broke up the performance. Roberts and the other dancer fled to the bathroom. Some of the players angrily protested that they had been hustled or shortchanged and demanded their money back—$800, paid in advance, for a two-hour show. A few suggested calling the police.

By this time, at about 12:15 a.m., Seligmann had already left the party. At 12:14, his cell-phone records show, he called a cab. After the taxi dropped him off at an ATM for cash, he bought some takeout burgers and returned to his dorm. Finnerty, too, was out the door, off with some other players to get tacos at a Mexican joint a mile away. His cell-phone records show him beginning to make calls at 12:22, just about the time he was later alleged to have been raping the other dancer, the one who filed the charges.

Standing in his living room, Evans was worried that the cops would show up. The commotion was enough to disturb the neighbors. Evans had recently been cited for a noise violation; the Durham police were trying to crack down on rowdy parties that sometimes spilled out of the houses rented by teams and fraternities on the edge of campus.

One of Evans's teammates suggested taking back the money from the accuser. Evans told the teammate he was "stupid," and was worried that the man who dropped her off probably had a gun "and would kill us," according to his statement to police.

Trying to find some way to end the disastrous evening, one of the co-captains, Flannery, slipped $100 under the bathroom door in an effort to get the women to come out and go away. The women emerged, but the accuser, half-dressed and yelling, began wandering around the yard. Meanwhile, one of the players took some of the dance money she'd left behind in her inebriated state. Evans, by his own account increasingly agitated, demanded the money be returned.

Shortly before 1 o'clock, the two women finally did leave, amid a flurry of taunts. Roberts called the players "short d--k white boys," according to several defense attorneys. ("She did admit to saying that," says Simeon.) One player shouted back, "We asked for whites, not n-----s." Roberts yelled, "That's a racial slur, a hate crime," as she drove off with the other dancer slumped inside.

Evans, who had been on the phone to his girlfriend, hung up when he heard Roberts's last comment. Shooing some freshmen away, he retreated to a neighboring house rented by other players. He was worried about the police showing up and citing him for another noise (or public-drinking) violation. He had no idea.

The storm gathered slowly. Knowing they had nothing to hide, the three captains gave statements to the police the day after the party and volunteered to take lie-detector tests (the police turned them down). All 47 players, minus the team's one black player, who was never implicated, gave cheek swabs for DNA. Unknown to the players, the accuser was claiming, in vivid if changing and confusing detail, that she had been throttled and sexually assaulted at the Duke lacrosse party. The prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who was running for re-election in Durham, which is 40 percent black, began talking to reporters. He said he had "no doubt" that a sexual assault had taken place, called the players "hooligans" and accused them of stonewalling.

The players decided to lie low—not to wear lacrosse regalia or announce that they were members of the team. One night about a week after the incident, Finnerty and another player noticed a Take Back the Night rally as they walked to the library. Curious, they went over to hear the speakers decry sexual assault on campus. Activists were handing out WANTED posters with pictures of the team. A student came up and began talking to Finnerty's teammate. Before the student walked off, he pulled out a tape recorder and made a show of hitting the STOP button, to make clear he had been recording the conversation. "You could see that something big was going on," recalled Finnerty, who wondered if he'd see the conversation in print.

Just how big was apparent three weeks later, when Finnerty sat beside his father in court, waiting to be arraigned for rape. As father and son tried to stare straight ahead, newspeople thrust cameras in their faces and slipped them cards with phone numbers. A couple of preachers came up, saying, "Get down on your knees, pray with me." "It was, like, 'No thank you'," recalls Kevin Finnerty, Collin's father.

The university shunned the indicted players. They were banned from setting foot on campus. The Finnertys met with Duke president Richard Brodhead to plead with him; they wanted him to stress the presumption of innocence. Brodhead told them, "As a parent, I feel for you, but as the president there is only so much I can do for you," say the Finnertys. It was "the ostrich head in the sand," says Kevin Finnerty. (Referring to the Duke case generally, Brodhead said last week that he regretted the "entire episode.")

For the press, it was an irresistible tale, with its stew of race, sex and class. It was a story that had every ingredient that the press savors. There were entitled rich kids at an exclusive university; there was a white prosecutor who seemed to be playing the race card to get elected by black voters; there was a sympathetic alleged victim, a black woman who was an exotic dancer, but who was also a single mother who said that she was a student at a local college. And lastly, there was an allegation of the most lurid kind of sexual violence. The press needed there to have been a rape to keep the story going. It was much too dull to consider that the lacrosse players deserved the presumption of innocence. Finnerty's girlfriend, Jessica, would throw things at the TV. For weeks, NEWSWEEK's cover story on the case, illustrated with mug shots of Finnerty and Seligmann (Evans had not yet been indicted), sat on a table in the family den before Finnerty finally got around to reading it. "The title ['Sex, Lies and Duke'] was pretty bad," Finnerty recalled.

Seligmann found the stereotyping especially painful. Recruited by Harvard and Yale, he had proudly chosen Duke. Now he was being portrayed, at least by implication, as a dumb jock. Some elements of the Duke community, like the girls' lacrosse team, rallied behind the players, but the faculty seemed to write them off as racists and thugs. "It was a very lonely feeling," Seligmann recalled. "You were looking for people to step up and be behind you when you most needed them. Certain people weren't there."

Seligmann had a seemingly airtight alibi—he had left the party before the alleged rape occurred, and he could prove it with receipts and phone records. In early summer, when Nifong disclosed the evidence in the case (as required by law), Seligmann pored through the documents as he was being driven from the courthouse. At first, he was encouraged. There was nothing there—no DNA or physical evidence, and the accuser seemed to have changed her story numerous times. But then it dawned on Seligmann that the very lack of evidence made Nifong's determination all the more eerie and worrisome. There was seemingly nothing that would stop him.

Nifong got a boost from The New York Times in August. On the front page of the Friday paper, a long article featured a confidential report—a Durham policeman's summary of his interview with the accuser. Though he didn't take notes during the interview, he said she'd described someone with Finnerty's distinctive tall, thin looks as her assailant. The newspaper treated the report unskeptically, even though notes taken during the interview by the other officer present indicate that none of her descriptions fit the player. "We were so blown away," says Mary Ellen Finnerty, Collin's mother. "We were just so furious."

Finnerty was living at home on New York's Long Island, taking a course at Hofstra University and doing some charity work. But he was often alone in his room, playing pop music and classic rock on his plugged-in acoustic guitar. His brother and sisters began to worry. A shy teenager, he had come out of his shell at Duke, but now he appeared to be retreating back into it. At his home in New Jersey, Seligmann did a little lacrosse coaching, but he missed school and his friends. "Going to the mall with your parents on a Friday night is, like, not the coolest thing you could possibly do," says Seligmann.

In December, he got a lift while sitting in court. The defense team dismantled a DNA expert on cross-examination. When one of the lawyers got the expert to admit that he had agreed with Nifong to withhold potentially exculpatory evidence (the DNA of several men, none of them Duke lacrosse players, found on the accuser), the courtroom burst into applause. For a moment, Seligmann recalls, he forgot that he was a defendant; he wanted to become a lawyer.

Under growing criticism from the legal community, Nifong by this time had granted an audience to Seligmann's lawyer, Jim Cooney. When they met on Dec. 5, Nifong was feeling sorry for himself, says Cooney. Nifong complained that he'd done a lot of good in his career—but would now be remembered for his controversial role in the Duke rape case. Still, Cooney recalls, Nifong insisted that no one was going to intimidate him. If the plan was to intimidate the dancer, whom he referred to as the "victim," well, she didn't scare easily, either. Nifong "doesn't take issue with that account," says David Freedman, Nifong's lawyer.

At Christmastime, Seligmann was in London with his family, brushing his teeth in his hotel bathroom, when his brother got a message from his girlfriend via Facebook that the rape charges were being dropped. The news was exciting, but puzzling. Why hadn't Cooney called? Then he learned that Nifong was dropping the rape charge—but going ahead with charges of kidnapping and committing a sexual offense. "That was the most frustrating point in the case, because you're, like, 'This man will not let it go, no matter what we do'."

As the story roller-coastered along, week after week, Seligmann and his parents became dependent on the reassuring monotone of Cooney. "He'd tell us: The case. Is going. To. Be. Dropped," says Seligmann. Facing ethics charges, Nifong had recused himself in late December, but Seligmann was too suspicious to believe that a new set of prosecutors would give them a fair shake.

But they did. Though the accuser wanted to go ahead with the case, she kept contradicting herself, the attorney general said. Only the woman's apparent sincerity kept the prosecutors from bringing some kind of action against her for false testimony. Last week Mark Simeon, who also handles press inquiries on her behalf, told NEWSWEEK that she had just had a baby—and that her parents were "disappointed" that the case was dropped. Nifong, who faces possible disbarment for making misleading statements, publicly apologized to the players. Looking hugely relieved at a press conference last Wednesday, Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann expressed hope that the system would be reformed to stop runaway prosecutors. (Attorneys for the three have not said whether they plan to sue Nifong, but they haven't ruled it out.)

That night, says Seligmann's mother, Kathy, "I had the first good night's sleep I had had in a year." Her son noted that "the first thing I did, I don't know if I was doing it intentionally or not, but I woke up and I just smiled."