In a blistering assessment of the case, Attorney General Roy 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."
Later, at an often-bitter, I-told-you-so news conference, 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.
"It's been 395 days since this nightmare began. And finally today it's coming to a closure," said one of the cleared defendants, David Evans, his voice breaking at one point. "We're just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed. The facts don't change."
Defense attorney Joe Cheshire said: "We're angry, very angry. But we're very relieved."
Nifong was out of town and could not immediately be reached for comment. But his lawyer, David Freedman, said: "If further investigation showed the boys were innocent, he would be in agreement with what the attorney general's office decided to do."
Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense after the woman told police she was assaulted in the bathroom at an off-campus house during a team party where she had been hired to perform. The rape charges were dropped months ago; the other charges remained until Wednesday.
The case stirred furious debate over race, class and the privileged status of college athletes, and heightened long-standing tensions in Durham between its large working-class black population and the mostly white, mostly affluent students at the private, elite university.
The woman is black and attended nearby North Carolina Central University, a historically black school; all three Duke players are white.
The attorney general said the eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, no DNA supported the stripper's story, no other witness corroborated it, and the woman contradicted herself.
"Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges," Cooper said. He said the charges resulted from a "tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations."
"I think a lot of people owe a lot of apologies to a lot of people," Cooper said.
Cooper offered no explanation for why the stripper told such a story and would not discuss her mental health. However, he said no charges will be brought against her, saying she "may actually believe" the many different stories she told.
"We believe it is in the best interest of justice not to bring charges," he said.
The accuser's whereabouts were not immediately known. The Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex-crime cases.
Portraying Nifong as a "rogue prosecutor," Cooper called for the passage of a law that would allow the North Carolina Supreme Court to remove a district attorney where justice demands it.
At the news conference with his former teammates, Finnerty said: "Knowing I had the truth on my side was really the most comforting thing of all throughout this last year."
Seligmann thanked his lawyers for sparing him from 30 years in prison for a "hoax" and complained that society has lost sight of the presumption of innocence. "This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice," he said.
The case was troubled almost from the start. DNA failed to connect any of the athletes to the 28-year-old stripper. One of the athletes claimed to have ATM receipts and time-stamped photos that provided an alibi. It was also learned that the stripper had leveled similar gang-rape allegations a decade ago, and no charges resulted.