Duke boosters, families hire ex-Clinton lawyer

DURHAM, N.C. -- A small group of boosters and others close to the Duke University lacrosse team have hired President Clinton's former lawyer as part of an aggressive public relations effort to argue that the players did not sexually assault a woman at an off-campus party.

Bob Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and Washington attorney who represented Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, is serving as a spokesman for a group calling itself the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families.

He is not expected to represent any players, but he has joined the chorus of those who fear for the reputation of the team and the university.

"It is unfortunate that members of the Duke community, players and families are being judged before all the facts are in," Bennett said in a statement. "A lot of innocent young people and the families are being hurt, and unfortunately this situation is being abused by people with separate agendas. It is grossly unfair, and cool heads must prevail."

The group has asked to meet with Duke president Richard Brodhead. Neither Brodhead nor Bennett returned calls for comment.

No charges have been filed while district attorney Mike Nifong presses on with his investigation of allegations that an exotic dancer was sexually assaulted at a team party March 13. Earlier this week, lawyers for the players said that DNA tests failed to connect any members of the 47-man team to the alleged attack.

Meanwhile, the school has told seven recruits who signed letters of intent to play with Duke that they will be released from their commitments if they choose, The Washington Post reported in Thursday's editions. With next season in doubt, as many as four have requested such a release, the Post reported.

The current players' parents -- initially silent -- have also started to speak out.

Brian Loftus, who has two sons on the team, wondered Wednesday why Nifong was continuing to press ahead with the case.

"I don't understand it," said Loftus, of Syosset, N.Y.

Nifong has refused requests for an interview. He is running for another term in May and took part in a candidate forum Wednesday evening, in which he reiterated that he believes a medical exam of the alleged victim indicates a crime occurred.

"The fact is, I didn't pick the crime. I didn't pick the time," Nifong said at the forum. "But I'm going to do the case right."

The family of Devon Sherwood, a freshman goalie and the team's only black member, said the DNA results should have marked the end of the investigation of the highly ranked team. The Blue Devils played for last year's national title and were considered a favorite this season before Duke canceled the season.

"I'm just glad that that ordeal is over with and hopefully as we progress with the case, it will show that all of the players will be exonerated ... of any wrongdoing at all," said Devon
Sherwood's father, Chuck, of Freeport, N.Y.

Devon Sherwood was not tested because he is black, and the alleged victim, a black woman, had said her attackers were white.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.