<
>

Judge tosses boat-party charges against Culpepper

MINNEAPOLIS -- Daunte Culpepper got rid of his last headache in Minnesota on Tuesday when a judge dismissed misdemeanor lewd conduct charges, saying a prosecutor didn't show probable cause.

Culpepper, one of four Vikings charged after a rowdy boat party last October on suburban Lake Minnetonka, testified last month that he merely played dice on the cruise. That, plus backing testimony from a friend, was enough to convince a judge to toss out the charges.

"Since no evidence was presented to refute this testimony, this court is compelled to find" lack of probable cause, Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke ruled.

"I was confident when the legal process began that the truth would come out, and I am glad that my innocence has been proven. I greatly appreciate Judge Burke's sensitivity to the damage that can be done to a person's reputation when they are wrongly charged," Culpepper said in a statement.

"In the meantime I stand with my former teammates that are still in the legal process. I consider them innocent until proven guilty. I want to thank my attorneys David W. Martin and Earl P. Gray for their help in defending me in this case.

"I am delighted to begin my role as a Miami Dolphin with this issue now behind us."

Culpepper's attorney, Earl Gray, said, "I'm happy about it. I'm sure Culpepper is, and his family. It vindicates him from being involved in any sexual misconduct on the boat."

Prosecutor Steve Tallen was in court and didn't immediately return a phone message.

Burke denied a motion to dismiss charges against running back Moe Williams. His trial is scheduled for April 18.

The other two players charged, cornerback Fred Smoot and tackle Bryant McKinnie, weren't part of Tuesday's ruling. Their next hearings were scheduled for Thursday.

Williams' attorney, Joe Friedberg, said he was disappointed.

"I disagree with him, but that's what makes horse racing," Friedberg said.

Both Culpepper and Williams had denied any improper conduct in a hearing before Burke last month. Culpepper, who was accused of touching a dancer's buttocks, testified that he spent the cruise playing a dice game in the back of a boat and rejected offers from several women.

Williams, accused of touching a dancer's breast, testified that a woman danced near him but he never touched her.

In explaining his ruling, Burke wrote Culpepper's version of events would clear him if true, and since the prosecutor offered nothing to rebut it, he found no probable cause that a crime was committed.

The difference with Williams, the judge wrote, was that his story wouldn't necessarily exonerate him because a crew member may have seen the dance and been offended.

Both players also claimed that race played a factor in Tallen's decision to charge them. They pointed out that two white men, including the captain of one of the boats, weren't charged even though investigators found evidence the men both kissed a stripper's exposed nipple.

Burke said he understood the "sense of injustice" behind the claim but said the court was "virtually precluded" from challenging Tallen's right to decide whom he charged.

Tallen denied at last month's hearing that race was a factor, saying the case against the white men was shaky.

The boat party scandal was the lowest point in a dismal season for the Vikings, who lost Culpepper to a serious knee injury soon afterward. After his relationship with the team and new head coach Brad Childress went bad in the offseason, he was traded to Miami last month for a second-round pick.

All four players faced identical charges of indecent conduct, disorderly conduct and lewd or lascivious conduct. Conviction on a single misdemeanor charge is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.