Guilty in the Duke Case
One night in jail: So concludes the Duke lacrosse rape case -- rape fraud, as it turned out. The legacy of this incident should include hard thinking about the deep pathologies underlying the media sensationalism and the perversion of academic ideals that this fraud inspired.
The 24-hour sentence was imposed on Mike Nifong, the disbarred former district attorney of Durham, after a contempt-of-court trial last week for repeatedly lying to hide DNA evidence of innocence. His prosecution of three demonstrably innocent defendants, based on an emotionally disturbed stripper's ever-changing account, may be the worst prosecutorial misconduct ever exposed while it was happening. Durham police officers and other officials aided Nifong, and the city and county face the threat of a massive lawsuit by the falsely accused former students seeking criminal justice reforms and compensation.
All this shows how the criminal justice process can oppress the innocent -- usually poor people lacking the resources to fight back -- and illustrates the need for reforms to restrain rogue prosecutors. But the case was also a major cultural event exposing habits of mind among academics and journalists that contradict what should be their lodestar: the pursuit of truth.
Nifong's lies, his inflaming of racial hatred (to win the black vote in his election campaign) and his targeting of innocent people were hardly representative of criminal prosecutors. But the smearing of the lacrosse players as racist, sexist, thuggish louts by many was all too representative.
Dozens of the activist professors who dominate campus discourse gleefully stereotyped and vilified their own students -- and not one member of Duke's undergraduate faculty publicly dissented for months. Duke President Richard Brodhead repeatedly and misleadingly denigrated the players' characters. He also acted as though he had no problem with Nifong's violations of their rights to due process.
The New York Times and other newspapers vied with trash-TV talk shows hosted by the likes of CNN's Nancy Grace, a biased wacko-feminist, and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a right-wing blowhard, in a race to the journalistic bottom. The defendants -- who endured the ordeal with courage and class -- and their teammates were smeared nationwide as depraved racists and probable rapists.
To be sure, it was natural to assume at first that Nifong had a case. Why else would he confidently declare the players guilty? But many academics and journalists continued to presume guilt months after massive evidence of innocence poured into the public record. Indeed, some professors persisted in attacks even after the three defendants were declared innocent in April by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper -- an almost unheard-of event.
Brushing aside concern with "the 'truth' . . . about the incident," as one put it, these faculty ideologues just changed their indictments from rape to drunkenness (hardly a rarity in college); exploiting poor black women (the players had expected white and Hispanic strippers); and being born white, male and prosperous.
This shameful conduct was rooted in a broader trend toward subordinating facts and evidence to faith-based ideological posturing. Worse, the ascendant ideology, especially in academia, is an obsession with the fantasy that oppression of minorities and women by "privileged" white men remains rampant in America. Its crude stereotyping of white men, especially athletes, resembles old-fashioned racism and sexism.
Can this trend be reversed? The power of extremist professors will continue to spread unless mainstream liberal academics, alumni and trustees stop deferring to them and stop letting them pack departments with more and more ideologically eccentric, intellectually mediocre allies.
As for the media, the case shows the need for editors and watchdogs to remind journalists that they are supposed to be in the truth-telling business and that truth emerges from facts and evidence.
The case did feature one hero, who showed how academics as well as journalists should behave: Professor James Coleman of Duke Law School. Long a champion of liberal causes, Coleman broke ranks with his guilt-presuming colleagues after Brodhead named him to lead a committee investigating the team's culture. Yes, the report Coleman's committee issued in May 2006 said that some lacrosse players drank unlawfully or excessively and had committed such petty offenses as having noisy parties. But alcohol aside, the report was a stunning vindication. Team members had "performed well academically"; respected the Duke employees with whom they came into contact; behaved well on trips; supported current and former African American players; and had no history of fighting, sexual assault or harassment, or racist slurs.
The media long ignored this portrayal, which did not fit their mythical story line. Coleman later became the first -- and for months the only -- Duke figure to publicly denounce Nifong's violations of the players' rights. The media long ignored that, too.
Stuart Taylor is a National Journal columnist and Newsweek contributor. KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. They are co-authors of "Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case."