April 30, 2007 12:00 PM

Early on his attorney laid down the law: no talking in public about his case. So Collin Finnerty stood silent for a year while he was vilified for his alleged role in the Duke rape scandal. As therapy the former lacrosse player spent three hours a day at his parents’ home in Garden City, N.Y., playing his guitars and singing alone—heavy on the works of bluesman Eric Clapton, not surprisingly. Spending a year being called a rapist was so shattering that, even days after the April 11 announcement that Finnerty, 20, and two other former Duke lacrosse players were cleared of all charges, no one in his family was ready to lift their voices in joy. “We are still all kind of numb,” says his mother, Mary Ellen. “I don’t think you live with this for so long and just forget it.”

Not that there’s much chance of the mess going away just yet. With the exoneration of Finnerty and teammates Reade Seligmann, 21, and David Evans, 24, attention is now turning to the conduct of Mike Nifong, the district attorney in Durham, N.C., who from the start loudly proclaimed his certainty that the three were responsible for sexually assaulting an exotic dancer at an off-campus party for the lacrosse team in March 2006. In a scathing remark, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who took over the case in January, described Nifong as a “rogue” prosecutor who “pushed ahead unchecked,” committing such acts as withholding DNA evidence for six months that likely could have cleared the three players right away. Replied Nifong in a statement: “To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students.”

For Finnerty and his family, the mea culpa didn’t begin to undo their year of pain. His father, Kevin, who works on Wall Street, says that when he heard the news that Collin was about to be indicted, “It was like getting punched in the stomach.” Kevin took the next two months off from his job and found himself spending nearly every day meeting with lawyers. “Your son’s life is on the line, and you are scrambling to find the right people to hire,” he says. Meanwhile, even though the Duke administration suspended Collin from school in the wake of the charges, he discovered there was no place to escape the furor that erupted over the case, with magazine covers and early marathon coverage on cable news. “Some days Nifong would be on TV and all the talking heads would be talking about it,” says Collin, “about how these kids are guilty.”

Though the family believed in Collin’s innocence, they coped with the growing fear that he might be convicted anyway. “I was physically ill,” says Mary Ellen, who adds that she often resorted to pills to get to sleep. “It was really, really, really hard.” She went to weekly counseling sessions, and Collin went once. They also credit a priest who is a longtime family friend for making regular visits to the home to help the entire family, including Collin’s two younger sisters Molly, 17, and Emily, 12, as well as his grown brothers Sean, 25, and Kyle, 23. Says Mary Ellen: “He walked us through many a dark night.”

The Finnertys maintain that they bear no grudge against exotic dancer Crystal Gail Mangum, 28, who made the allegations. Pointing out that Mangum, a mother of three small children, changed her story numerous times, Mary Ellen says, “She needs psychological care.” But they are not at all forgiving of Nifong, who also framed the case as a study in race—Mangum is black; all but one of the 47 members of Duke’s lacrosse team are white—and privileged. Says Kevin: “We think Nifong is much more the criminal.” The North Carolina State Bar has accused Nifong, who was locked in a tight election campaign when the case broke, of “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” He is scheduled to face a bar trial in June, which could result in his losing his law license. Says Duke law professor James Coleman of Nifong’s conduct: “I think he was showing contempt for what a prosecutor is supposed to do, which is to try to figure out what the truth is.”

Nifong may soon have other worries hanging over him. Kevin Finnerty says that defending his son “cost a lot of money”—he estimates that the legal bills for all the Duke players ensnared in the allegations totaled at least $5 million—and that he is considering a civil suit. Meantime, Seligmann, who was a sophomore at Duke, is deciding which college to attend, and Evans, who graduated last year, is planning to work on Wall Street. Collin Finnerty hasn’t decided if he will return to Duke. “It’s still an option,” he says. When asked if his experience has motivated him to become an attorney, Finnerty says it’s possible—but it’s not top-of-mind at the moment: “I’ve kind of had enough of law for now.”

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