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Duke rape case unravels

Although rape charges were dropped, three lacrosse players are still facing serious charges that carry equal jail time.

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Fueled by stereotypes of race and class, as well as a zealous prosecutor, the criminal case against three Duke lacrosse players emerged as a test of the ability of the justice system to sift evidence through a prism of prejudices. Now, after the key charges of rape were dropped Friday, the case is also being seen as a cautionary tale for prosecutors and pundits alike, emblematic of how cultural stereotypes and perceptions don't always add up to hard facts on the ground.

The fuse was lit last March in Durham, N.C., at an off-campus party for lacrosse players – many of whom were Northerners enjoying an exclusive Southern university. Add to the scene two black exotic dancers, who grew up in the predominantly black city walled off from the school. Soon after, three of the white players were charged with kidnapping, assaulting, and raping one of the exotic dancers, allegedly amid a litany of racial slurs.

Yet since then, it's hardly been an open-and-shut case.

"As you look at the facts in the case and look at the testimony, everybody agrees that the case has many significant weaknesses, any one of which may be sufficient basis for either a judge to dismiss or a jury to find the defendants not guilty," says Bennett Gershman, a civil rights law professor at Pace University in White Plains, N.Y.

Charges of kidnapping and first-degree sexual offense (which includes acts similar to rape) are still lodged against Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y.; David Evans of Bethesda, Md.; and Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J. But the rape charges were dropped because the alleged victim "could no longer testify with certainty that it occurred," according to court documents.

The move came a week after a Dec. 15 court hearing in which a judge ordered a paternity test for the now-pregnant accuser. In addition, facts showed that District Attorney Mike Nifong asked a DNA lab director to withhold potentially exculpatory information from defense attorneys for "the Duke Three," as supporters call them.

Problems for the prosecution

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