Rape Accusation Against Lacrosse Players Roils Duke

By Joe Holley and Christian Sweezey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 30, 2006; E01

DURHAM, N.C., March 29 -- Shortly after Duke University's highly ranked men's lacrosse team posted a 9-7 win over Loyola in San Diego on March 11, Coach Mike Pressler posted a comment for a Web site called InsideLacrosse.com. "Now we look ahead to the most difficult weeks in Duke lacrosse history," he said, looking forward to his team's upcoming games with North Carolina, Cornell and Georgetown.

Pressler, in his 16th year as lacrosse coach at Duke, was prescient. But not in a way he anticipated.

A once-promising season came to an abrupt end, at least temporarily, this week when Duke President Richard H. Brodhead announced the suspension of all of the team's games in response to charges by a black woman that she was sexually assaulted, sodomized and strangled by three unidentified lacrosse team members at a house party not far from the Duke campus on March 13. The incident has roiled the idyllic Durham campus, exacerbated the school's relationship with residents of the town and raised disturbing racial concerns.

Police ordered 46 of the 47 members of the lacrosse team to provide DNA samples last week. The tests will compare the DNA to samples taken from the accuser. Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said she expects the tests to be completed by early next week. DNA was not taken from the lone black member of the team because the woman said her assailants were white, police said.

Students and faculty members and Durham residents have staged at least a half-dozen vigils and protests the past five days, including a "Take Back the Night" march last night. Many students have urged school officials to do more to pressure players into telling authorities what happened. Letters to the editor of the Chronicle, the school newspaper, have expressed concern and outrage.

The woman, reportedly a 27-year-old student at nearby North Carolina Central University, told Durham police that she and another black woman were hired as exotic dancers to entertain a group of five men. When the women arrived at the house, they encountered more than 40 men, all of them white, and were taunted with racist epithets, the woman told police.

According to court documents released Monday, the exotic dancer said that when she and the other woman began their routine, one of the men watching held up a broomstick and threatened to sexually assault them.

After the threat, both women became frightened and left but a man who followed them outside apologized and persuaded them to return. At that point, the woman reported, three men shoved her into a bathroom and began the assault, which she said lasted about 30 minutes.

Although no charges have been filed, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong said he is convinced a rape occurred. He also said charges were possible against those who were at the party but did nothing to try to prevent the incident.

"We're talking about a situation where had somebody spoken up and said, 'Wait a minute, we can't do this,' this incident might not have taken place," he told the Raleigh News & Observer.

The team captains issued a statement Tuesday expressing regret for the decision to hire the strippers and serve alcohol at the party. But they denied the criminal allegations and said that "the team has cooperated with the police in their investigation. We have provided authorities with DNA samples. The understanding is that the results of the DNA testing will be available sometime next week. The DNA results will demonstrate that these allegations are completely false."

"The members of the team completely support each other and they know the thing with which they are charged could not possibly have happened," said one individual close to the team who asked not to be identified. "The players are shocked and stunned that this has gotten to such a point. The team was so looking forward to this season. They have had it suspended when they didn't commit a crime. Their only crime was bad judgment; of everything else, they are innocent."

The team went on to play two games -- defeating North Carolina, then losing to Cornell -- before news of the alleged assault surfaced last week. Initially, Athletic Director Joe Alleva said that Duke would forfeit the team's next two games. But in the face of mounting pressure, Brodhead announced Tuesday that the university had suspended all future games until there was a resolution of the legal situation involving team members.

"In this painful period of uncertainty, it is clear to me, as it was to the players, that it would be inappropriate to resume the normal schedule of play," Brodhead said. "Sports have their time and place, but when an issue of this gravity is in question, it is not time to be playing games."

Brodhead said he made the decision to suspend the games following a meeting with Alleva and captains of the team.

"I completely agree with President Brodhead's statement and appreciate his leadership throughout this trying situation," Alleva said in a statement released by the university. "As unsettling as this has been for our entire community, dealing with difficult circumstances is part of the educational process."

Brodhead said he hoped that the incident would not interfere with Duke's growing ties with North Carolina Central University, a historically black institution. He also expressed concern that the incident could affect Duke's relations with the surrounding community, noting that the house where the party was held is one of 15 properties the university recently purchased in response to complaints about noise and other disturbances caused by parties in off-campus houses rented by multiple students.

Duke students said the tension between students and the Durham community is real. Durham, with a population of 210,000, is the home of one of the nation's most prestigious universities but also is a working-class, former tobacco town with a large black population. "There is a disconnect between Duke and the community," said Jeff Richmond, a 21-year-old senior from Beaver, W.Va. "Duke students think of Durham as a dark, scary place."

One resident looked at the incident from a different perspective. "Whoever done it needs to step up," said Benny Meriweather, 45, a tire company employee. Meriweather said he had seen Duke students buying cases of beer at local grocery stores and had learned to avoid the Main Street neighborhood near campus where many Duke students live and party.

The lacrosse team continued to practice, even after games against Georgetown and Mount St. Mary's were canceled. Saturday's scheduled game with Ohio State in Columbus has been canceled as well. The Blue Devils had a 6-2 record before the suspensions. According to Art Chase, Duke's sports information director, the games will count as "no contests" rather than forfeits.

Duke had nine starters back from a team that went 17-3 last season and advanced to the NCAA title game, losing to Johns Hopkins, 9-8, last Memorial Day. It was the best season in school history.

Nine of the 47 players on Duke's roster went to high school in the Washington area. Five of them played at Landon, two at Bullis, and one each at Georgetown Prep and the Potomac School.

Phone messages and e-mails to Pressler, several players and parents were not returned.

The incident has rattled the growing but tightknit lacrosse community.

"It's hard to focus on X's and O's right now," said Virginia Coach Dom Starsia, whose No. 1-ranked team is preparing for a weekend contest against No. 3 Maryland in College Park. "I spoke to [Maryland Coach Dave Cottle] and I said no disrespect, but I am having trouble focusing."

Sweezey reported from Washington.

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