The lawsuit calls the criminal case against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans "one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history."
It seeks unspecified damages and numerous reforms to the way the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations — including the appointment of a monitor who would have the power to hire, fire and promote department employees, including the chief, for 10 years.
The suit was filed about a month after city officials met with lawyers for the families seeking a $30 million settlement and several legal reforms, two people close to the case have told The Associated Press.
Apparently unable, or unwilling, to reach a deal with the families, the city pledged Friday to defend itself and its employees, but not Nifong — who held a state office — or the private DNA testing lab he hired.
City spokeswoman Beverly B. Thompson said the players' complaint "asserts claims against the city and its employees that appear to be based on untested and unproven legal theories."
Should the case go to trial, it would extend a legal debacle that began in March 2006, when a woman hired to perform as a stripper at a lacrosse team party told police she had been raped.
The criminal side of the case largely ended in April, when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the three players innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse." In dropping the charges, Cooper said the state's investigation found nothing to corroborate the accuser's story, leading his staff to "the conclusion that no attack occurred."
In the months that followed, the state bar stripped Nifong of his law license, concluding he relentlessly pursued a flawed case for political gain. He resigned as Durham County's district attorney and spent a night in jail last month after a judge held him in criminal contempt of court for lying about DNA evidence. He did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment.
Along with Nifong, the lawsuit names 13 other individual defendants, including former Police Chief Steven Chalmers, police investigators Benjamin Himan and Mark Gottlieb, and Brian Meehan, the director of DNA Security Inc., the private lab that conducted the DNA testing that helped unravel the case. Nifong withheld that evidence from defense attorneys for months.
The lawsuit also names Meehan's lab as a defendant, but it does not name the accuser.
Paul Dickinson Jr., a Charlotte attorney who represents the lab, Meehan and company President Richard Clark, who is also a defendant, said the allegations were false.
The case seeks damages to punish the defendants "for outrageous conduct pursued out of actual malice" that violated the players' civil rights. It also seeks the creation of an independent committee to publicly review complaints of police misconduct, the improvement of police training procedures and an injunction prohibiting Meehan and his laboratory from providing reports or expert testimony in court for 10 years.
"They really do feel like they need to be vindicated and money won't do it," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "They had to spend a year vindicating themselves. I can understand how they would want to have full relief, especially reforming the system if possible."
In June, the players reached an undisclosed financial settlement with Duke University. Richard D. Emery, a New York-based civil rights attorney representing Seligmann, said the players were "committed to making this case about stopping Durham and any other city from falsely accusing and convicting innocent people."
"This is not about money for the boys, though obviously they deserve compensation," Emery said. "This is about sending a message to public officials who only get the message when they have to pay the money."