RALEIGH, N.C. -- All along, the three Duke lacrosse players proclaimed they were innocent of charges they sexually assaulted a stripper. They were railroaded, they insisted, by a prosecutor who refused to believe them and ignored the facts.
It took more than a year, but on Wednesday, North Carolina's top prosecutor finally agreed with them.
Attorney General Roy Cooper declared them innocent of all charges and delivered a blistering assessment of a district attorney he blamed for a "tragic rush to accuse."
"We're just as innocent today as we were back then," said one of the players, David Evans. "Nothing has changed. The facts don't change."
Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty declared a bitter victory in a hotel press conference that looked a bit like a team's end-of-the-season awards dinner, only with their lawyers joining them behind the table instead of their coaches.
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure," said Evans, his voice breaking at one point.
The three young men and their lawyers accused the news media and the public of disregarding the presumption of innocence and portraying them as thugs in the weeks following the March 2006 party that led to the allegations.
"It's painful to remember what we went through in those first days. and it's just a testament to all of our character we never lashed out, we stood there strong," Evans said.
Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved." Afterward, Cheshire said work would soon begin to expunge the trio's arrest record in the case.
Cooper dropped all charges against the players, all but ensuring that only one person in the whole scandal will be held to account: Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong.
"This case shows the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor," Cooper said.
Cooper, who took over the case in January after Nifong was charged with ethics violations that could get him disbarred, said his own investigation into a stripper's claim that she was sexually assaulted at a team party found nothing to corroborate her story, and "led us to the conclusion that no attack occurred."
"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," Cooper said. "In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."