RALEIGH, N.C. – The city of Durham, former District Attorney Mike Nifong and the DNA laboratory hired by the disbarred ex-prosecutor conspired to falsely charge three Duke lacrosse players with rape, a federal civil lawsuit filed Friday alleges.

The 162-page document, a painstaking account of every step of alleged misconduct that drips with indignation, sets the stage for a high-profile, high-stakes legal battle.

“There’s never been a case like this one,” said Richard Emery, one of three attorneys representing former lacrosse player Reade Seligmann.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., charges that the defendants maliciously conspired to charge the three men with rape, even though they knew that charges were “a total fabrication by a mentally troubled, drug-prone exotic dancer whose claims, time and again, were contradicted by physical evidence, documentary evidence, other witnesses, and even the accuser herself.”

Seligmann and the two other exonerated lacrosse players, David Evans and Collin Finnerty, are seeking unspecified actual and punitive damages.

They’re also seeking broad reforms in the Durham Police Department, including a court-appointed monitor who would preapprove police public statements and have the power to hire police chiefs, among other duties.

City officials and attorneys for DNA Securities Inc. promised to fight the suit.

Durham had balked on a settlement demand from the former players reported at $30 million.

The city was sued, as were former Police Chief Steven Chalmers, Deputy Chief Ron Hodge and seven other members of the department.

“We understand that the complaint asserts claims against the city and its employees that appear to be based on untested and unproven legal theories,” city spokeswoman Beverly B. Thompson said Friday, adding that she couldn’t elaborate on what theories those might be.

“In light of that, the City Council has directed legal counsel to vigorously defend the city and city employees in court against this lawsuit.”

Bob Sar, a lawyer representing DNA Security as well as company President Richard Clark and laboratory director Brian Meehan, issued a similar short statement.

“The allegations against DNA are completely false,” Sar said. “The company will vigorously defend itself and will prevail in court.”

Nifong couldn’t be reached for comment.

The lawsuit called the case “one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial, and scientific misconduct in modern American history, which resulted in charges brought and maintained against three innocent Duke University students and lacrosse players over a period of more than one year.”

Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were charged with raping an escort service dancer at an off-campus lacrosse team party in March 2006. After taking over the investigation earlier this year, the state Attorney General said no crime occurred and declared the three men innocent.

The motive, according to the lawsuit, was to use the false allegations as fuel for a media campaign so that Nifong could win a contested election for District Attorney.

Emery said there are three elements to the conspiracy charge:

-Undermining the players’ case by making inflammatory statements in the media about their guilt and ignoring evidence that could exonerate them, including ever-changing stories from the accuser;

-Suppressing DNA evidence, which Emery said would have exonerated them in April 2006;

-And “manufacturing an identification from a process where the victim could not make a mistake.”

The latter refers to an April 4, 2006, incident when the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, was shown pictures of all the white members of the Duke lacrosse team.

She chose four out of those photos as her attackers, three of whom were later indicted.

Emery said the players’ attorneys would be aggressive in pursuing the case. “We are going to press this case like no other case has been pressed before,” Emery said from his New York office.

“We are going to push this case to trial as fast as humanly possible, hopefully within a year.”

Luke Largess, a Charlotte attorney with extensive experience suing municipalities under the federal civil rights statute the former players are employing, said such cases can drag on for years.

Lumping the co-defendants together puts the city in an awkward position. City leaders have decried the “rogue prosecutor” Nifong taking over the case and have tried to pin the rush-to-accuse allegations on him.

But the suit alleges that the police department committed a serious sin by allowing Nifong to take over the case, apparently with little resistance.

“Durham Police officials . . . knew that it was unprecedented for a district attorney to direct a police investigation, that Nifong at the time was engaged in a hotly-contested election campaign, and that by assuming primary responsibility for the police investigation Nifong would be in a position to exploit Mangum’s high- profile, racially charged rape allegation for his personal political gain,” the suit said.

“Nevertheless, (police) ignored these extraordinary circumstances and the inherent conflict of interest by agreeing that Nifong would direct the police investigation into Mangum’s allegations.”

Largess said he would expect one of the defendants to file a motion seeking to sever the suit so that the city would only be responding to specific allegations made against Durham.

“I don’t think they have the grounds to do that,” said David Rudolf, another of Seligmann’s attorneys. “We’ve alleged a conspiracy in which they all acted together.”

The suit is loaded with sweeping language, far from the matter-of-fact tones that often characterize legal documents.

“The passion and emotion you hear in the complaint is a function of the anger we all feel for the abuse of power and the degradation of justice, the harm done to the lives of these boys for a year and the permanent harm to their reputations,” Emery said.

“You can’t help if you are a thinking. feeling person but be furious about it.”

(c) 2007, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

Visit The News & Observer online at http://www.newsobserver.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-05-07 1841EDT

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