One of the best speeches I have ever heard came from James P. Cooney III at a recent meeting of The Rotary Club of Charlotte. His presentation focused on three critical factors that saved three young men from prosecution after having been falsely accused of raping and kidnapping an exotic dancer at a teammate’s house on February 13, 2006. As the defense attorney for Reade Seligman, one of the three young men, Mr. Cooney had the inside story. Having graduated from Duke University and the University of Virginia Law School, Mr. Cooney, a lawyer with Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, presented his case extremely well.
Facing prosecution by then District Attorney Mike Nifong, Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans were the three Duke Lacrosse players accused of crimes punishable with up to 30 years in prison. Mr. Cooney credited three critical factors that were instrumental in having the charges dismissed and having the North Carolina Attorney General declaring the three men innocent. He listed North Carolina’s “open file discovery” statute, intense scrutiny of DNA evidence, and a vote by the North Carolina Bar Association ethics committee as the essential elements that eventually freed the three young men.
After successfully defending and overturning the conviction and sentence of death row inmate Allen Gell, Mr. Cooney and others worked with North Carolina legislators in 2004 to pass the “Open File Discovery” law that requires prosecutors to give defense attorneys everything they have in their case files. District attorneys could no longer decide what the defense would receive. As a result, defense attorneys could better prepare and defend their clients from prosecution. In the Duke/Lacrosse case, all information and evidence was required to be shared before the prosecution of the case began. In reviewing the files, defense attorneys learned about the frailty of the prosecution’s evidence and the weaknesses within their case.
Mr. Cooney also described the intense examination of DNA evidence that had been compromised while it was being studied. When they learned that none of the DNA evidence came from the three young men, they felt an obligation to take the next step and initiate action with the North Carolina Bar Association to turn back the actions of D.A. Nifong.
Seldom does the N.C. Bar interfere with a case that is in progress. The organization often waits until proceedings have ended before they consider any action against any of the parties. However, in this case, the evidence against D.A. Nifong was substantial. When the ethics violation was first filed against Mr. Nifong, the ethics committee of the N.C. Bar stalemated (tie vote of 8 to 8) after much internal debate as to whether to even consider the evidence. Subsequently, the committee chair broke the tie and the issue was forwarded to the N.C. Attorney General for review. Once A.G. Roy Cooper reviewed the charges and the evidence, he directed that all charges be dropped against the three young men. Seligman, Finnerty and Evans were released.
The three men have moved on with their lives and are now living in different urban areas. Adding insult to injury, they were told it not worthwhile to file charges against their accuser. Even if they were to do so, the case would drag out even longer with little gain in the end. In North Carolina a false accuser may only be charged with a misdemeanor. That simply was not worth the time and effort. Mike Nifong was disbarred and filed for personal bankruptcy.
In closing, Mr. Cooney reminded everyone that for justice to prevail, everyone must work incredibly hard to make sure that justice is served at the end of the day. He described where the three boys have pursued their futures. David Evans, who had graduated from Duke just before he was indicted, has gone to work on Wall Street. Collin Finnerty has moved to Loyola University to play Lacrosse and graduate. Reade Seligman went to Brown University to also play Lacrosse and finish school. He also expects to practice law and is currently working with Barry Scheck on the Innocence Project that is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.
Finally, Mr. Cooney reminded everyone that prosecutors are still trying to overturn the “open discovery file” statute to this day. He hopes they will not succeed.