Wolves in Blazers and Khakis

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 13, 2006

They look like such upstanding young gentlemen in their blue blazers and pressed khakis. They say "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," and they attend the finest of schools. And they are such loyal friends. Oh, their stories matched up so prettily as they trooped up onto the witness stand to defend their boy, Collin Finnerty.

The name is familiar, of course, or else I wouldn't be in D.C. Superior Court for a misdemeanor assault case, a garden-variety crime that gets churned out here like beer cans rolling through a Budweiser plant.

Finnerty, the tall, lean, clean-cut, baby-faced fellow over at the defendant's table, is one of those Duke University lacrosse players we've read so much about of late. He's been indicted in North Carolina on charges that he raped a stripper during an off-campus party in March. As flimsy as that case appears to be, it was enough to alter the course of Finnerty's charge stemming from a sidewalk fracas in Georgetown.

If you hit a stranger on the streets of Georgetown, the court system generally requests that you not do this again and sends you on your way. That's what happened to two buddies of Finnerty's who were also caught after the late-night violence on Wisconsin Avenue NW last November.

Finnerty, too, would have gotten a comfy spot in what's known as the "diversion" program had it not been for his other troubles. But with the rape charge hanging over the 19-year-old from New York, the D.C. prosecutors and judge decided a trial was in order. Cue the upstanding gentlemen.

Surrounded by family, friends, priests and a battalion of lawyers scratching away in the gallery on their yellow legal pads, Finnerty seems like the last guy in the world who would hurl vile insults and threats at two young men he'd never before seen. Michael Hannan, the father of Finnerty's girlfriend, tells the court that he watched Collin back home on Long Island at neighborhood parties and cotillion dances and concluded that this young man was "a very warm and gentle individual," "extremely peaceful and extremely nonviolent." Otherwise, of course, Hannan would never have permitted his daughter to go out with the kid.

But on cross-examination, prosecutor George Varghese finds out that Hannan has never seen Finnerty under the influence of alcohol and therefore has no clue how the boy behaves when he's plastered.

Now we're getting to the nub of the case. Because while no one in the courtroom makes much of an issue of it, this case is swimming in beer. The boys, all of them underage, testify that they were drinking back at the Georgetown University dorms, drinking in Georgetown bars -- they were even heading back to campus to drink some more after they'd finished attacking two strangers.

If the people crowding into Judge John Bayly's courtroom are looking for insight into the North Carolina case, here it comes: How do you make sense of the disconnect between the proud, even arrogant claims of excellent character by Finnerty's friends and the disgusting descriptions of his behavior by the two men he humiliated that night in Georgetown?

How is it that these polite youngsters spent half an hour shoving and taunting total strangers, making them announce to the world in the coarsest possible terms, right there on a public sidewalk, that they perform gay sex acts? What could gentlemen say that would cause Scott Herndon, one of the victims, to run into a restaurant seeking help because he thought he was going to be killed?

Answer: When in the company of elders and teachers, these young men do behave admirably. When the stage lights go off and the guys head out to drink and drink and drink, anything goes. Hey, they're just kids! Or as the priest who testified for Finnerty puts it, "One incident doesn't make a gentleman's character."

You could sit through this two-day trial and be appalled that the kind of case that ordinarily gets done in an hour takes up about a dozen times more resources -- two prosecutors and a supervisor! -- and time simply because of the defendant's notoriety, celebrity and money.

Or you could take solace in Judge Bayly's wise observation that no matter how many lawyers and witnesses the defense throws into the mix, a case like this still comes down to one side's word against the other's.

From there, the judge did the right thing: He found the victims more credible and convicted Finnerty on Tuesday. Because in fact, when you pick on a stranger, when you find fun in tormenting the innocent, when you believe it is in any way acceptable to attack another human being, then that incident indeed does open a window onto a larger truth.

Even if no rape occurred in the Duke case, even if that ugly incident was no more than a raucous party at which a bunch of drunken kids verbally abused a hired performer, it sounds like it was entirely within character for these kids and the friend they tried to talk out of trouble in D.C. Superior Court. Sorry, Father, but one incident often does make a gentleman's character.

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