DURHAM, N.C. -- It took three tries for disgraced former prosecutor Mike Nifong to utter the words that three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape were determined to hear him say.
On Thursday, more than 16 months after beginning a disastrous prosecution of the former players, Nifong offered a complete and unqualified apology. After two rebuffed attempts to express remorse for his mishandling of the case, Nifong acknowledged there is "no credible evidence" to support allegations the men attacked an exotic dancer during a team party last year.
"We all need to heal," Nifong said during a court hearing. "It is my hope that we can start this process today."
Nifong's apology came as a judge began the process of considering whether to hold the former Durham County district attorney in criminal contempt of court for his handling of the discredited case.
Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III has already concluded there is probable cause to believe Nifong "willfully and intentionally made false statements of material fact" to the court during a hearing in the case last fall. If he finds Nifong in contempt after an Aug. 30 hearing, the now-disbarred former prosecutor could face up to 30 days in jail.
The case started with a woman's allegations that she was sexually assaulted at a March 2006 lacrosse team party where she was hired as an exotic dancer. Nifong won indictments against three team members, but the charges were later dropped, and state attorney general Roy Cooper went a step farther by declaring the three men innocent
victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."
The next day, Nifong issued a written statement apologizing "to the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect."
In June, Nifong offered a tearful apology to the families but said "I think something happened in that bathroom" and "something happened to make everyone leave that scene very quickly."
The response enraged the players' attorneys and left the mother of one player in tears.
But on Thursday, Nifong placed no such qualifications on his apology.
"I agree with the attorney general's statement that there is no credible evidence that Mr. Seligmann, Mr. Finnerty or Mr. Evans committed any of the crimes for which they were indicted -- or any other crimes against [the accuser] -- during the party," Nifong said, adding that state prosecutors uncovered evidence he didn't have.
Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire called the previous apologies "far from sincere" and said the families would have to decide whether to accept the latest one. None of the three players was in court.
"I think it is a statement that has much more validity than any of the other so-called apologies he has attempted to make," Cheshire said after the hearing.
Nifong declined to comment afterward, as did his attorneys.
The men's attorneys had asked Smith to hold Nifong in contempt for telling the court he had provided the defense complete results from DNA testing when he had not.
Nifong learned in April 2006 the laboratory found genetic material from multiple males, but none from the lacrosse players, on and about the accuser. He didn't provide that information to the defense until October -- and only then in the form of nearly 2,000 pages of raw DNA test data.
The players' attorneys had also asked the court to order Nifong to pay for the cost of sifting through that data and any other penalty it deemed appropriate. Following Nifong's apology Thursday, they withdrew requests for additional sanctions.
Two of the wrongly accused men, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, declined invitations to return to Duke; Finnerty plans to attend Loyola of Maryland this fall, and Seligmann plans to attend Brown University. The third, Dave Evans, graduated the day
before he was indicted.