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THE SITUATION ROOM

Duke Lacrosse Press Conference; War Czar

Aired April 11, 2007 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOE CHESHIRE, DAVID EVANS' ATTORNEY: Let me introduce, first, the families to you all.
Seated first here behind me are Dave Evans' family. And if you all don't mind just standing so that everybody can identify who you are.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: Thank you.

Seated next are Reade's mom and dad.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: And then the smallest family unit is Collin's family, the Finnerties.

If you all would just...

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: I want to make just a brief comment about these three groups of people.

I have two boys myself. Both are grown, both lacrosse players. I've said quite often that if you don't have children, you don't understand what the words love and fear and hate and joy are. You don't understand any of the emotion words. You might think you do. You might have a girlfriend you love or you might love your dad or your mom, but you don't know what love is.

And you don't know what pain is. And I want you all to know that these people have suffered as much pain as one could suffer without losing a loved one. But I also want you to know that they have done it with grace and pride, like no one you have ever seen. And I have never in my life been prouder to know mothers and fathers than I am to know these three groups of moms and dads.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: The lawyers at the table -- this is what we call the DNA breaker. This is the man who almost single-handedly broke the Duke lacrosse case and discovered the cheating that was going on by Mike Nifong and his office. This is Brad Bannon.

(APPLAUSE) And one cannot give him enough praise for what he did. He may be my partner, but he is a great young lawyer.

The next lawyer is Jim Cooney. Jim is Reade's primary lawyer. Jim was like, for you people that are athletes, the guy who came and came on in the middle of the case. And he was like the great sixth man who comes onto the floor when his team is stagnating and walks on the floor and all of a sudden the team has its swagger back and is back up by 10 points again, almost instantaneously. That's Jim Cooney and we were blessed when he -- he came on board with us.

Next is Wade Smith. Wade is my mentor and one of the finest lawyers that North Carolina has ever produced. When Wade Smith talks, everyone in North Carolina listens.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: And he brought an immense credibility to this defense. Some of us are fighters. Some of us are street fighters. Wade Smith is an honorable gentleman.

Next to Wade is Buddy Conner. Buddy Conner is one of North Carolina's great warriors. He represented Reade with Kirk Osborn. I want to talk about Kirk in just a minute. But Buddy and Kirk were the lawyers who first filed a motion saying this case should be dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct. They knew a duck when they saw a duck.

(APPLAUSE).

CHESHIRE: And they had the courage to do that. And let me tell you something, they suffered a tremendous price from the establishment of North Carolina, the judicial establishment, the justice establishment, for taking that stand and having that kind of courage. And nobody should ever, ever minimize the effect that that had or their strength and belief in Reade Seligmann and going out with his alibi early, because it began to unravel (AUDIO GAP) gets inside all of the lawyers' notes. But we wouldn't be where we are, we couldn't have assessed where we needed to be without Bill Conner. He had a lot of courage to be a Durham lawyer and stand up, let me tell you. It took a lot of courage.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: And the next is Doug Kingsbury. (AUDIO GAP).

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: Now...

(APPLAUSE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks.

(APPLAUSE).

CHESHIRE: Yes, Brad was the last person to stand up. And thank you. Thank you for (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: In that regard, I do want to remind you all of one brief thing. On March the 30th of last year, when the press was completely out of control, when these boys were the guiltiest people on the face of the Earth, when everyone in this country was pillorying them as hooligans and rapists, I called a little press conference in my office and I looked at you national media and you local media and I said -- I was kind of scared when I said it -- but I said you all are wrong and when this case is over, you're going to be embarrassed if you don't open your eyes and listen to what the truth is.

Somebody in the press said to me afterward, we've never had anybody speak to us like that. That's a pretty dangerous thing to say.

Well, Roy Cooper said a word today. The word is I-N-N-O-C-E-N-T. And I want to make sure everybody has got that and knows how to spell it. These young men were, are and always have been innocent.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: I would be remiss if I didn't thank a number of other lawyers in Durham -- not a lot, but a few who had the courage to stand up to Mike Nifong.

One in particular, who represented a lot of the boys, Bob Ekstrand, and his...

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: ... wife and...

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: And two others I want to mention, Butch Williams, who worked tirelessly to try to explain, particularly to the African- American community, the truth of this situation. And one who has a special place in my heart, and that is Bill Thomas. I cannot tell you how dangerous it is in a small city or a small town to stand up against your district attorney. And Bill Thomas is a man who stood against his district attorney for the truth at great potential cost to himself and he is an unsung hero in this case and people should know that.

(APPLAUSE).

CHESHIRE: I also want to recognize -- I think we have a number of Duke lacrosse players here, both female and male, and I'd like for them to stand, if they would, the ones of them that are here.

Do we have some here?

(APPLAUSE) CHESHIRE: I don't -- I don't -- I don't want to go on -- I don't want to go on forever about these young people. But they have been mistreated as badly as any group of young people I have ever seen. And any of you that have had a child who works 40 hours a week at their studies and 40 more hours a week at their sport and has the discipline and desire to do that and also does community service and has grade point averages above 3.0, to say that those people are not fine people and to pillory them and talk down to them is just disgusting, to put a word on it.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is not a great day of celebration. I want you to understand that. This is a great day for justice. For all of us up here at this table, it's a great day of relief. So don't expect us to be happy that these young men went through this turmoil. We're not happy. We're angry, very angry.

But we are very relieved. We want to thank -- and I'm sure each person will join me, and some will talk about it individually, the attorney general of North Carolina for his great speech today, historic. I doubt it's ever been done in this country.

But mostly out of that office, we want to thank Jim Coleman and Mary Winstead.

Let me tell you something about Jim Coleman and Mary Winstead.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: I have tried cases against Jim Coleman and Mary Winstead, and they are two of the toughest, most prepared prosecutors you will ever see. Their imprimatur of innocence on these boys carries with it a certainty that is unassailable.

This case has just been amazing. I think you will see some of the pain, but I hope also you will see some of the quality of these young men. And maybe we can have some truth reported about that from this day on.

I'd like to call on Dave Evans, if I may.

He would like to make some comments to you all.

DAVID EVANS: Thank you all for being here.

Just as this saga is ending, I'd like to say we all got stuck on the elevator on the way down and never thought we would ever make it to here. But we finally have.

But I'd like to start out by thanking the attorney general and the special prosecutors for their diligent and professional job in reviewing the case file. It's been 395 days since this nightmare began and finally today it's come to a closure.

From the very beginning, many of the men who are sitting in this room, including myself, Reade and Collin, have said that we were innocent. And we're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed. Facts don't change. And we have never wavered in our story.

I'd also like to thank all the attorneys who are at the table before I get into anything. They've worked tirelessly. They've become family and we owe them our lives. And that's the most I can say. And I'd like to one more time...

(APPLAUSE)

EVANS: In addition -- I've got many other thank yous and I could never get to them all -- but my parents and my sister -- lord knows I've put them to hell and back and their support has let me remember and stay true to who I am in the face of tremendous scrutiny, speculation and outright fantastic lies.

When things were being said about me by people who had never met me, never cared to interview me, they kept me close. And this could have separated us all, but we stayed close and we're a stronger family because of it.

I don't take lightly the fact that their hard work, their success and their sacrifice has allowed me to be represented by such fine lawyers. Many people across this country, across this state, would not have the opportunity that we did. And this could simply have been brushed underneath the rug just as another case and some innocent person would end up in jail for their entire life.

And it's just not right. And I thank god every day that my parents have worked as hard as they have.

And thank you. And hugs and kisses. I won't do it now but...

I'd like to thank all the members of the university lacrosse team, Duke's University men's lacrosse team -- men's and women's -- who stuck together. We know who we are. A great disservice has been done to the sport of lacrosse through this whole thing and the stereotypes just aren't true. They sell magazines, they sell newspapers, but they are not anything that represents us as a sport, as a school, as a university and as a team, and they are wrong.

Along those lines, I'd like to thank my coach, Mike Pressler, who sacrificed everything. Sixteen years he spent building up a team to fall on the swords so that we could continue as a team at the university he loved, and we owe him everything. And I know he's out there...

(APPLAUSE)

EVANS: I can say, over the past year, I've gotten to know Reade, Collin and their families very well, and you couldn't find two more incredible boys -- men. People don't like us being referred to as boys. We are men and we accept responsibility for that.

I could never imagine what they have gone through. I was indicted the day after my graduation. And as difficult as that weekend was, finding out on Friday before I was indicted on Monday, I reached a pass in my life where I could take some time off. I still worked through it. I didn't want to have idle hands.

But these boys were ripped out of school -- the team that they loved, their friends, everything they'd ever worked for -- based on lies. And now they try to regain whatever they had before -- a university that will support them; their education, most importantly.

And I can tell you they are exceptional students, exceptional athletes and exceptional young men who are mature vastly beyond their years. And I hope that universities across this country realize that they are a true asset and I hope that you come to them and offer some sign of support, come to their aid. All they want to do is go to school and graduate.

I had that honor. Let's just hope that they can, as well.

(APPLAUSE)

EVANS: I'd like to say once again -- and I said it a long time ago -- these allegations are false. These charges were false and should never have been brought. We fully cooperated from the beginning. There was never a blue wall of silence. Look at the facts of the case and you will see that.

It -- it's painful to remember what we went through in those first days and it's just a testament to all of our character that we never lashed out. We stood there strong. If you want to know what character is, walk around your campus and see signs with your photo all over it and "wanted" signs and have people in the media relating to you to Hitler and other terrible people from history when you've done nothing wrong.

That is character to sit there and take that, as the young men of the Duke University men's lacrosse team did.

I hope that something good can come from this. In this past year that was robbed from our lives, all of the men of the Duke men's lacrosse team have gone to hell and back. But I hope -- and all of us sincerely hope -- that it was not in vain.

So first and foremost, I hope that people can realize innocent people can be charged of a crime and it is up to the justice system to determine guilt or innocence, not the news, not speculators and not people with some other agenda.

That is why there is a legal system. And today the legal system has prevailed.

Secondly, I hope that the state of North Carolina can address some issues that arose from our case, most notably the grand jury procedures. They are a check on the power of the prosecutor and in this case there are no records of what was used to secure indictments against the three of us. We have no idea.

The evidence shows that exculpatory evidence was there, but we cannot go back and understand why we were indicted. There was no "there" there. There was no factual evidence. It was speculation and we do not know and how can we, as a country and a legal system, control the people who are supposed to enforce it if they can simply say whatever they want to say, produce whatever they want to produce and nobody else has an opportunity to see or ever question it.

And I hope that the state assembly can address that. I know that they're addressing other issues as it relates to this.

In closing, I'm excited to get on with my life. It's been a long year -- longer than you could ever imagine. But I hope these allegations don't come to define me. I hope that the way that I could be remembered is sticking up for my name, for my family and for my team against impossible odds, impossible odds -- the entire country against us.

And we fought back for our names. You can never tell what life is going to give you, what curve balls, but you can be judged on how you handle the situation that's brought to you. And my family and I can sleep at night knowing that I did everything that I have always been told to do.

I never lied. I went in and cooperated from a day after the party and I can walk with my head held high and sleep at night knowing that I could not have done anything else to prove my innocence. And this day has been coming for a long time.

But, again, I'd like to thank the professionalism of the attorney general's office for giving me back my life. And I look forward to leading it.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: Collin Finnerty is now going to address you all and he's going to do that right here from his seat.

COLLIN FINNERTY: First, I would like to thank Roy Cooper and his office for their work over the past three months. Once they became involved with the case, I knew that fair and objective eyes were going to be looking at it and I was confident that justice would prevail.

There are many other people I'd like to thank for their continuing support over the last year.

The three defense teams involved in this case demonstrated their great legal skills, their ability to work together and their commitment to exposing the truth.

My family, and especially my parents -- my mom and dad really showed their true love for each other and for their family, as they held the five kids together through so much. I know my mom is probably feeling the best of anybody in this room. She definitely deserves it. My family has always stood behind me and they were with me with, with only support from the first minute this case broke.

Although we went through many tough times, both emotionally and physically, I feel closer to them now than I ever have before. That's definitely one of the best things that I can take from this case.

My friends and my girlfriend always gave me a place to turn when the pressure. When the pressure that goes along with being falsely accused mounted, they were always there for me.

Many students at Duke showed how much they believed in our innocence, especially the guys and women's teams here today. The coaches and the students from Ethical Durham -- you guys were amazing. And the many people in Durham who worked hard to ensure that this day would come.

The people at Shawmut High School have also been supporters from day one and I'm so proud to be one of their alumni.

Casey Johnson for his diligent work exposing the truth every day.

I would like to thank all the supporters from across the entire country -- the hundreds of letters I received from strangers gave my family a boost of confidence that we three families did not stand alone in this fight.

Something important about these three families up here, the Seligmanns' the Evans' and the Finnerties', is that we have become one big family through all this. We have a bond that will last forever. It's been a very long and emotional year for me and for all of us.

At points it was tough to see the light and even imagine the day without this weight on our shoulders. Knowing I had the truth on my side was really the most comforting thing of all throughout the past year. There were many ups and downs and points like it seemed where it would never end. But with the help of all of our supporters, each day seemed to get a little bit better. And today is that day we have all been waiting for.

I now look forward to a lot of things, although I will not miss the constant attention from the media. I'm excited to return to be a college student. I hope to return to the field again to play lacrosse and I can't wait to return to a normal life back on Long Island.

Although I have not been away at college over the past year, I have learned a lot. I now understand in a way that I never did before that family and friends are what matters most.

I hope to use my experience to prevent this from ever happening again to anyone. There seem to be some flaws in the legal system that should be addressed, as Dave said, the fact that in North Carolina there are no recordings of the grand jury. And to establish checks and balances on the D.A.

In the future, I will do everything I can to help others who face a situation similar to the one I have faced in the last year.

Finally, I would just like to say thank you for everyone who supported me. This experience will be with me forever and I will never forget all of those who stood next to me throughout the whole thing. The truth finally did prevail, as everyone said it would. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: Reade Seligmann will now speak with you all. And he will do so from the podium.

READE SELIGMANN: Hopefully you will all bear me right now. I'm a pretty emotional guy and it's a pretty emotional day, so I'm going to do my best.

But I want to start off by saying that we are all deeply saddened by the absence of Kirk Osborn. Kirk deserved to be here and he stood by my side from the very beginning of this injustice.

(APPLAUSE).

SELIGMANN: Not only has North Carolina lost one of its finest attorneys, it has lost a man who embodied the words honor and integrity. We will never forget his sacrifices and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Today marks the end of the year long nightmare that has been emotionally devastating for all of our families. This dark cloud of injustice that's hung above our heads has finally cleared and now we can look forward to moving on with our lives.

We greatly appreciate the efforts of Attorney General Roy Cooper and Special Prosecutors Jim Coleman and Mary Winstead. We recognize their diligence and perseverance to finding the truth and letting everyone out there know that we have always been 100 percent innocent of all these charges.

I would also like to thank my family for everything that they have done for me. My parents are the toughest, most loving parents anyone could ever ask for and I'm inspired by the courage and strength shown by my family.

I want to say hi to my brothers who can't be here today -- Max, Cameron and Ben. They have all provided me with so much love, guidance and unknowable (ph) faith in my innocence.

I must also thank all of my attorneys -- the late Kirk Osborne, Buddy Conner, Antonio Lewis and Jim Cooney, as well as all of the other men at the table. These attorneys did everything they could to ensure that three men did not spend 30 years in prison for a hoax.

I am forever grateful for the care, concern and encouragement I received from my remarkable girlfriend Brooke, who's standing right behind me, and her family; the Delbourne (ph) community; the town of Essex Fells, Casey Johnson; the men's and women's lacrosse teams -- thanks, guys, for showing up -- and everyone else who chose to stand up and use their voice to challenge the actions of District Attorney Nifong.

This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can't imagine what they would do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.

So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it.

The Duke lacrosse case has shown that our society has lost sight of the most fundamental principle of our legal system -- the presumption of innocence. For everyone who chose to speak out against us before any of the facts were known, I truly hope that you are never put in a position where you have to experience the same pain and heartache that you have caused our families, where your hurtful words and outrageous lies will forever be linked to this tragedy, everyone will always remember that we told the truth.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Truth is the best vindication against slander."

As the healing process begins for our families, I feel as though it is my responsibility to make sure something positive comes from this experience.

I look forward to continuing my education and pursuing the goals I have always set for myself. I greatly appreciate my educational and athletic opportunities and I look forward to continuing both in the fall.

My ultimate aspiration moving ahead is to live a life that will make all of those who stood by my side from the beginning of this injustice proud to know that they defended the truth.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

CHESHIRE: Jim Cooney?

JIM COONEY, READE SELIGMANN'S ATTORNEY: You know, I always seem to be in trial when something is happening in this case. I was arguing in front of a jury about two-and-a-half hours ago, so I'm in a little bit of a decompression.

But it reminded me that I got involved in this case when I was in the middle of another trial in the fall and Joe Cheshire called me. And I should know better than to take Joe's calls.

And he called me and said I have a case for you -- he had already tried to get me in the case once, by the way. And he told me you will never have a more innocent client than this young man. You have got to take this case.

And, of course, I was in the middle of a trial, I was tired, and I said look, let me get through this trial, I'll go up and talk to the family. And I spent two days with Kathy and Reade and Phil -- sat in their kitchen, talked to them, got to know them. And I cannot tell you the amount of pain that family was in.

The only comparison I can make was to a family who, god forbid, that had a child with a potentially fatal disease. And they woke up every morning not knowing whether their child was going to live and go on with a normal life or be taken from them favor.

Because make no mistake about that, if Mike Nifong had had his way, Reade Seligmann would have spent 30 years in jail and he never would have seen his parents alive again outside of a prison waiting room.

And, after spending that time with them, I decided that Joe was right, as he usually is, and I needed to be in this case.

And what I would like to do is take a couple of minutes and talk about heroes and cowards.

There are a number of heroes in this case that haven't been recognized, the magnificent professor Jim Coleman at Duke University, one of the few...

(APPLAUSE)

COONEY: ... one of the few professors who was willing to stay up -- stand up and say, this is not right. We have procedures for a reason. We have presumptions for a reason. What is going on is wrong.

And, as equally brave is a cab driver who is an immigrant to this company (sic), Moez Elmostafa. Moez Elmostafa gave Reade Seligmann and Rob Wellington a ride one night. He didn't know it was a big deal. He got called at 12:14. He picked them up at 12:19. He dropped them off at Duke at 12:46.

And the one thing he really remembered is, they went to cookouts and they smelled up his cab for a couple of days. And it turned out that that cab ride was the linchpin for Reade alibi, because, during that cab ride, this false accuser said my client was raping her.

And Moez Elmostafa gave an affidavit. He told the truth. He put it under oath, exactly the way we expect a citizen of this country to do. And what did that get him from Mike Nifong? They served a two- year-old warrant on him with no basis, and tried him for a bogus shoplifting charge to see if they could intimidate him. And Moez Elmostafa is still driving a cab in Durham. I don't know if he's listening to this. But he's one of the great heroes of this case.

(APPLAUSE)

COONEY: And, of course, Phil and Kathy Seligmann.

I mean, imagine facing a district attorney who wants to put your child in jail for 30 years. And they kept saying, why can't you get it dismissed? Why can't you go here or why can't you go there? And I kept explaining, in North Carolina, no one has a check on a district attorney. There is no procedure for that.

What you have to do is trust me. And we will work together and we have got a plan. And we're going to make it come alive in December. And we're going to be able to do that. And it took a lot of courage and bravery for them to hang on and do what they did and not fall apart. Lesser people would have fallen part. They didn't. And they are truly part of the heroes of this case.

The final hero I want to talk about is Reade. Those of you who know me know I have got daughters. And I love them greatly. I always regretted we didn't have a son, because sons and mothers have a special relationship, and I was fine with my daughters.

But let me tell you something. If I had a son, if I had had a son, I would want him to be like Reade Seligmann. Reade Seligmann, in four semesters at Duke, was on the honor roll twice. In this semester, with Mike Nifong trying to put him in jail and mobs threatening his life in the streets, that young man still had a 3.5 grade-point average. Everything you need to know about that, you just heard.

He, for a 20-year-old, a 21-year-old, is one of the bravest people I have ever met. And, even though I don't have a son, I'm going to call you on Father's Day, Reade.

(LAUGHTER)

COONEY: And I'm going to keep you straight.

And those are some of the heroes.

I want to talk a little bit about the cowards because, as Joe said, this is a bittersweet day. We're all delighted the justice system worked. But the reason it's bittersweet is because it never should have misfired to begin with. And the reason it misfired is because people were afraid to speak truth to power.

And I want to call out first the newspaper in Durham, North Carolina, "The Durham Herald-Sun," who, to this day...

(LAUGHTER)

COONEY: ... has not written a single editorial critical of the way in which Mike Nifong proceeded. If "The Durham-Herald Sun" had bothered to stand up and demand proper processes, the presumption of innocence, and doing things the way our Constitution provides, do you think Mike Nifong would have rolled forward?

Instead, they published editorials talking about how bad all the lacrosse players were, and that the lacrosse players should have to prove their innocence, and that, in addition to the crimes that night, there was a crime of a cover-up. And you will not see a word of apology from them.

In fact, as recently as two weeks ago, they were still publishing what they knew were lies, and repeating them.

Now, we will never sue them. They have got way too much money. And, as a general proposition in the law, you don't sue people who buy newsprint by the gallon, because they always win.

But, if they had done what journalists are supposed to do and spoken truth to power, they could have slowed this train down. And there are a number of other people in Durham, some of whom teach for a living, who should have stood up and said, wait a second. Civil rights means something. We have spent careers studying civil rights. We're not going to throw them down the drain simply because a district attorney tells us to.

One wonders what would have happened if the newspaper had stood up for proper processes and if the teachers had stood up for proper processes, whether that would have slowed the last coward of the case down. And you know who I'm talking about.

Now, I'm not going to say anything else about him, because he's got a bar hearing coming up. And I want to give him what he tried to deny Reade, a fair hearing, where he can put on his evidence. And I have got confidence in the state bar. And I have got confidence in their ability to decide that case fairly.

And, quite frankly, we wouldn't be here if the state bar hadn't taken the unprecedented action of filing an ethics complaint against Mr. Nifong in the middle of an ongoing prosecution.

But I will leave him with this one thought. I want him to read Proverbs, Chapter 11, beginning at Verse 29. And I know everyone in here knows that, but I will tell it anyway. "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. And the fool shall be a servant to the brave-hearted."

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: All right, that's Jim Cooney, attorney for Reade Seligmann, one of the Duke University lacrosse players, now all found innocent, absolutely innocent, of any wrongdoing by the attorney general of the state of North Carolina.

We're going to continue to monitor all of these statements, but we did hear from David Evans, Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann, their attorneys. We're watching this very closely -- closely.

I want to clarify CNN policy on one sensitive issue. CNN does not usually identify accusers in sexual assault or rape cases. That follows the policy of almost every state's judicial system, not to name alleged victims, so accusers will not be afraid to come forward.

Since the attorney general of North Carolina has decided to keep the identity of the Duke case accuser confidential, we will respect that policy decision in our coverage. Until we have more detail on why the state decided not to charge the accuser, we will stick with our policy. If events occur that make the identity of the accuser newsworthy, CNN will reevaluate our decision.

Let's get some analysis now of all of this drama, the dramatic developments that we have seen.

Our senior legal analyst, Jeff Toobin, has been watching all of this.

This is truly, Jeff, an amazing case. And I'm struck by these three Duke lacrosse players. Yesterday, we heard from some amazing athletes at Rutgers University, today, from Duke University. It speaks a lot about the state of racism, the state of sexism. A lot is going on now, but it also speaks about the justice system in the United States.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, you know, today's developments were some of the most extraordinary I have ever seen in covering this stuff for a long time.

The attorney general spoke -- or -- earlier this afternoon in a very sort of folksy, conversational way, but what he said was extremely unusual for any law enforcement official to say.

What I expected he would say today was, look, we looked into the case, and we think there's insufficient evidence to proceed.

That's how prosecutors usually talk. But he didn't say that, and he didn't say anything like that. What he said was, we have looked into the case, and these three young men are innocent. These were the wrong people charged. They didn't rape, assault, attack anybody. And that is something prosecutors almost never say.

The other thing he said was that Mike Nifong's investigation of this case, as the district attorney in charge, was incompetent, was unfair, and an insult to the criminal justice system. That's something that one prosecutor almost never says about another.

So, the magnitude of the victory for these three young men and their lawyers can't really be overstated. They have won an extraordinary victory. And it's really sobering, as one who covered this case, to see just how right one side was and how wrong the other side was.

BLITZER: It looks like Mike Nifong could be disbarred. He's facing very, very serious legal, ethical challenges right now.

But the prosecutor, the attorney general, in this case decided not to go forward with filing any charges against the accuser in this -- in this case. What do you make of that part of the story?

TOOBIN: Well, I -- you know, it was interesting. That came up late in his press conference. And it was quite obvious, I thought, that they had thought long and hard about whether she should be accused, because the magnitude of the trouble she has sowed in the legal system was really quite profound.

And they seemed completely confident that her story was not simply the confused statement of a rape victim, which, unfortunately, is fairly common, that it was out-and-out false, but they said -- but the attorney general said, given all the circumstances, which he didn't describe, he wasn't going to proceed.

But he clearly gave it a lot of thought. And I think that shows just how much of a problem her story was from the very beginning.

BLITZER: Jeff, stand by. We're going to continue to assess this case, the dramatic legal ramifications of it, the fallout, only now beginning to unfold.

We're also watching other important stories here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including Senator John McCain. He's firing away at Democrats today, as he speaks out in support of the U.S. war in Iraq. But will his close association with the fighting hurt his campaign for president?

Plus: a very different take on the war in Iraq from a Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Chris Dodd, here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And much more on that bombshell in the Duke lacrosse rape case.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to the battlefield now and U.S. troops ordered to serve longer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The defense secretary, Robert Gates, confirming it just a short while ago -- he's extending tours of duty for active U.S. Army soldiers from 12 months to 15 months.

A report from the Pentagon is coming up shortly.

But there's another new sign today, very hard times in the war zone, a possible job opening over at the White House. It now seems that the president and his national security team need help overseeing the wars that have been under way now for years.

Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by.

Ed, what's this talk of looking for what's being called a war czar?

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's what Democrats are demanding to know. If this is really needed, why did it take so long for the White House to decide that.

But they're also wondering why the president would delegate some of his war responsibilities in the first place.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): After nearly six years of war in Afghanistan, and four years after declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, it's come to this, help wanted at the White House, someone to fill the potential new post of war czar, leading Democrats to mock the job search.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), ILLINOIS: There is a position called the war czar. It's called the commander in chief. We're long on P.R., long on slogans, and short on a policy. They don't need a war czar. They need a policy for success in Iraq.

HENRY: White House spokeswoman Dana Perino scoffed.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's really interesting coming from somebody who works with 217 other members of Congress who think that they are commanders in chief. The president is the commander in chief. He has put -- has had no trouble attracting very high-caliber talent to positions across the administration, even late in the administration.

HENRY: Democrats believe such a move now may be too little, too late for an administration initially credited with having a remarkable national security team.

KURT CAMPBELL, FORMER CLINTON PENTAGON OFFICIAL: Now, six or seven years later, what's clear, as you look across sort of the -- the diamond, and there on the bench, it's just open pine.

HENRY: "The Washington Post" reports, at least three retired generals have turned the job down. But the White House downplayed it all as only a potential restructuring of the National Security Council to improve the chances of victory in both wars.

PERINO: I have to stress to you that no decisions have been made. No one has been offered the job.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, Wolf, if you look at the video wall, more than two years ago, "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman actually wrote a column suggesting, in 2004, that the White House do this very thing, create a war czar, saying -- quote -- "I have never understood how an administration that wanted a war so badly and will be judged on it by history so profoundly could manage it so sloppily."

Now, today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, look, this is what Stephen Hadley would be doing, this war czar job, if he had the time to do it. But, again, that's why the Democrats are saying, why in the world didn't the White House come forward sooner and say, look, Stephen Hadley, others, may be overworked; you have got two wars going on right now; why didn't they do this sooner, Wolf?

BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House for us.

At the same time, the Bush administration and congressional Democrats remain at loggerheads over war spending bills and proposed deadlines for a troop pullout from Iraq, each side urging the other to give ground.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel.

Any signs anyone is budging, Andrea?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all, Wolf.

In fact, today, Senate Democrats tried to turn the tables on the president. And, for the first time, just one day after they rejected an offer from the president to go over to the White House and talk with him about a clean bill, one without a deadline for troops to withdraw, Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the president saying, come up here to our turf, to Capitol Hill, on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: If the president is serious, and not as isolated as people think he is, maybe he will take us up on this. The president is as isolated, I believe, on the Iraq issue as Richard Nixon was when he was hunkered down in the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOPPEL: Now, to give you a sense as to just how dug in these two sides are, today, a White House spokesman refused to even respond to the Democrats' offer, and only repeated the fact that the president had issued this invitation, a bicameral, bipartisan delegation to come to the White House next Wednesday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Both sides say they want to fund the troops. What happens if the president goes ahead, vetoes? What do the Democrats say they are going to do then?

KOPPEL: Well, we spoke to a number of Democrats in the halls today.

And, really, what they're saying is, there no consensus as to what to do next. There are a number of ideas floating around out there. And -- and the fundamentals are that it would have to include the idea that there must be a change of course in Iraq, and that you can't cut off the funding. But, right now, Wolf, there is no plan B.

BLITZER: Andrea Koppel on the Hill for us -- Andrea, thanks.

Still ahead: Democratic presidential candidates firing right back at Senator John McCain's new attack on them over Iraq. I will talk to Senator Barack Obama. That's coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Plus: an interview with Senator and White House contender Chris Dodd. He's also opening up about the Don Imus controversy. Chris Dodd will be here as well.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: In the presidential race, Democrat Chris Dodd is hitting back at fellow senator, Republican rival John McCain. The new skirmishes over Iraq come as Dodd addresses the Don Imus controversy and why it hits close to home for him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

Senator, thanks for coming in.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Wolf, very much.

BLITZER: I'm going to play a little clip of what you said on January 11 on the Don Imus show. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "IMUS IN THE MORNING")

DODD: Well, listen, I'm going to file today, formally, papers of candidacy. I'm going to skip this exploratory phase that I know a lot people go through, and -- and become a full -- full-fledged candidate for the presidency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, that was obviously a conscientious decision on your part to announce your presidency on his program.

Why did you select the Don Imus show to do that?

DODD: Well, for a couple of reasons.

One, he's got a huge audience. He gives you enough time to talk, not a 30-second sound bite, a chance to explain your views, how you feel about issues, what you think the important questions are, and a chance to reach an audience that doesn't always watch the Sunday morning talk shows. So, I appreciated the chance to be on and make my case.

BLITZER: Was it a good -- knowing what you know now, obviously, was it a good idea?

DODD: Well, certainly.

Look, let's talk about what's at hand here, Wolf. And that is what -- what happened last week on his show, the statements made. I have two young daughters. How would I want my two young daughters treated or talked about? And, obviously, it's unacceptable. It's deplorable, the language that was used to describe these young women at Rutgers.

We know what the charges are. Don Imus has apologized for them. I take his apology to be a sincere one. Now, obviously, the actions he takes in the next few days -- I applaud this women's basketball team, their coaches and others, for agreeing to sit down with him, him to sit down with them.

His actions will show the depth of that sincerity. And I will make my decisions based on that in the coming days.

BLITZER: Because some of his critics have said, you know, he's got years and years, a history of making statements on the program, his program, not only degrading African-Americans, but women, and gays, and Jews, and all sorts of individuals, and that -- that your decision to go on that show really elevates that program.

DODD: Well, my answer is what I have said to you here.

Look, again, having young daughters, I deplore the language that was used there and those circumstances. He's apologized. I accept the sincerity of that apology. His actions, obviously, will determine whether or not -- how sincere those words are.

This is an opportunity as well here. We have to discuss far more candidly than we have in this country race relations. We have got to reach out to each other. We can -- maybe this opportunity may provide an opportunity for some healing in this country. So, let's see how it develops over the next few days.

BLITZER: So, at this point, have you made a decision whether or not you will go back on his show, assuming it survives?

DODD: No, I have said -- what I just said, Wolf, to you is, look, I will -- I will wait and see how Don's -- Don Imus' actions here really underscore the sincerity that he has expressed in his apology. And, if that's there, then I would go back on. If not, then I won't.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Iraq.

You're going to be delivering a major speech on Iraq. John McCain, one of the Republican presidential candidates, delivered his own major speech earlier today. Among other things, he lashed out at Democrats.

I want you to listen to this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering.

A defeat for the United States is a cause for mourning, not celebrating.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You want to respond to McCain?

DODD: Well, first of all, I was on the floor when that vote occurred. There was no cheering at all -- quite the contrary. Look, the president and my good friend John McCain, who I have a great deal of respect for, couldn't be more wrong about this. The country is exhausted of this. The Iraqi people, I think, are demonstrating no willingness to come together, politically, in that country, at all. We don't have a treasury deep enough, an army big enough.

I'm a view that we ought to begin redeploying immediately. I'm the only candidate that I know of that is supporting the Feingold-Reid proposal, which says, on March 31 of 2008, with a safe redeployment of our forces out of Iraq, we ought to end this conflict. Now, this has gone on way too long.

I will be speaking tonight in Iowa at greater length about this and the post-Iraq period, on how we need a surge in diplomacy, of building alliances around the world, to not only deal with the Middle East, but a myriad of other issues this nation is confronting.

In six short years -- less than that -- this administration has taken us to a point where we're far too isolated in this world, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

DODD: We need to reverse that trend, in my view. John McCain and the president couldn't be more wrong, in my view, in their policies.

BLITZER: All right. So, I just want to be precise. On the issue of funding the troops to continue operating in the theater in the war, you're -- you're aligning yourself with Harry Reid and Russ Feingold, and you're saying that other Democrats, including Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, they're wrong?

DODD: Well, I just think -- listen, this is -- we can fool ourselves and continue this and go on at some length.

I think we need clarity. I think the more clarity there is to this, the earlier there is, then there's some slight chance maybe the Iraqis will do what they should have been doing over the past several years, and that is resolving their differences politically.

As long as we're standing in the middle there, in the middle of a civil conflict, I think there's less and less likelihood of that. It's making us less secure, making Iraq less secure. The notion we become more secure and more stable by a continued presence there, I think, is completely wrong. We need to fundamentally change this policy. And that's what I stand for.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, the president, the vice president, they make the argument that, if the U.S. were to withdraw, along the lines of what you're suggesting, that the situation there would be a whole lot worse, including, potentially, genocide breaking out.

What do you say to that charge that God knows what could happen there if the U.S. were to pull out? DODD: How much more chaotic could it possibly be, when you turn on watch your television or read your news reports? I was there in December talking to senior military people, junior officers, noncoms. All of them of a similar mind here: There is no military solution to this.

I don't know how many times it needs to be said by how many different people, from Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, senior military commanders who have been on the ground there for months. This is not working.

And the notion, somehow, that more chaos would ensue if we stay -- is just wrong headed. I believe quite the contrary. I think there's some chance here that chaos might end. Iraq may begin to sort out its future if we're not there in the middle of that conflict.

BLITZER: Right now, you don't have the votes. The president says he's going to veto this legislation. You will need 67 votes in the Senate to override the veto. You don't have that.

So, what happens, in terms of the troops on the ground, funding those troops?

DODD: Well, again, I -- I believe you can be against the policy -- and, certainly, none of us are going to deprive the troops whatever they need in order to be safe. That distinction is clear.

If you accept the logic that they're offering here, then we would never leave, I suppose, under any circumstances. And that doesn't make any sense to anyone at all. I believe you can do both, end the policy and provide for the safe redeployment of our forces on the ground there.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, we have got to leave it there. We will listen to your speech tonight in Iowa.

Thanks very much for coming in.

DODD: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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