The Duke Debacle

Friday, April 13, 2007

"NO CREDIBLE evidence" of criminal conduct. "A tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations," demonstrating "the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor." And, most important of all, "We need to learn from this and keep it from happening again."

No one who has followed the travesty of the three former Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of sexual assault could have been surprised by those conclusions, announced Wednesday by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. In moving to drop the remaining charges against the three players, Mr. Cooper offered an unsparing assessment of the flimsiness of the case against the students and the gross ethical lapses of their would-be prosecutor, Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong.

Mr. Nifong, who faces ethics charges from the North Carolina State Bar for making improper remarks, withholding exculpatory evidence and misleading the judge in the case, bears an enormous share of the responsibility for the miscarriage of justice that took place here. He ignored or discounted numerous problems with the case and with the credibility of the accuser.

This prosecutorial intransigence may have been affected by the racial and class overtones of the case -- privileged white students and an African American accuser -- and Mr. Nifong's desire to win support among African American voters in his election campaign. Whether or not district attorneys should be elected, Mr. Cooper may have a valuable idea in his proposal to give the state Supreme Court more authority to remove problem prosecutors. The most chilling part of this case is to imagine what might have befallen these students if they had not had the money -- and therefore the access to top-flight lawyers -- that allowed them to successfully challenge their indictments.

But Mr. Nifong is not the only party at fault here. News organizations, eager to pursue a "Jocks Gone Wild" story line, aided and abetted his rush to judgment, all but pronouncing the students guilty before the facts were in. A notable early skeptic was Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal, whose precise analysis of the evidence stands as a rebuke to less careful colleagues. Similarly, the Pavlovian politically correct response among some at Duke University, who bemoaned "white privilege" and were quick to dispense with any presumptions of innocence, is embarrassing in hindsight.

The lacrosse players, though done an enormous disservice, were not paragons of virtue. Hiring a stripper to perform at a team party is offensive. The evidence suggests, as well, that some of the players -- though not necessarily the three accused students -- made racially derogatory remarks to the accuser and the other dancer who accompanied her.

As for the accuser, Mr. Cooper said he chose not to prosecute her because she "may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling." That her stories turned out to be untrue does not mean that other women's accusations should be treated dismissively. It just means they should be evaluated by a prosecutor with a greater sense of fairness to both sides than Mr. Nifong displayed throughout the past year.

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