The Magazine

Duke's Tenured Vigilantes

The scandalous rush to judgment in the lacrosse "rape" case.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Nifong may also face sanctions from the North Carolina State Bar for other ethically debatable conduct: obtaining a court order for all 46 white members of the 47-man Duke lacrosse team on March 23 to submit to DNA testing, even though he knew by then that the accuser had not been able to identify a single one of them as a suspect in two separate police photo lineups (the DNA tests exonerated all 46); for ordering a third photo lineup on April 4 after the first two had failed, which the accuser was told consisted only of pictures of lacrosse players (it was from this lineup that she picked out Seligmann, Finnerty, and Evans); and for publicly denouncing members of the lacrosse team as "hooligans," insisting--without bothering to interview his star witness--that "gang-like rape activity" had occurred, and urging those who had attended the party to "come forward" and break the "stone wall of silence" with which they were supposedly covering up a gross crime. Nifong seemed not to have read his own police reports, in which Kim Roberts, a second woman hired from the escort service that night (and who also changed her story several times), called the accuser's rape allegations "a crock."

Nifong, courting Durham's substantial black vote in a May 2 Democratic primary for reelection as district attorney (a primary that he won handily, as well as the election itself), also played the race card, pointing out that "racial slurs and general racial hostility" had accompanied the alleged attack. Indeed, there had been two racial epithets let loose that night, as the accuser and Roberts left the party after dancing for only a few minutes (according to Roberts) because the accuser, paid $400 in advance, declined to perform, whether because she was insulted by crude remarks made by the partygoers, because she was too drunk to dance when she got there, or because she had combined alcohol with a prescription muscle relaxant she had taken earlier in the day. As the two women departed, one lacrosse player shouted the n-word at Roberts and another yelled, "Hey, bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt!"--a riff on a Chris Rock routine that the shouter undoubtedly thought was funny. Everyone would agree that both remarks were unacceptable, but there is no evidence that either Finnerty or Evans made either of them, and Seligmann was already elsewhere, as electronic records showed.

Mike Nifong's handling of the case was clearly outrageous. But he would probably not have gone so far, indeed would not have dared to go so far, had he not been egged on by two other groups that rushed just as quickly to judge the three accused young men guilty of gross and racially motivated carnal violence. Despite the repeated attempts by the three to clear themselves, a substantial and vocal percentage--about one-fifth--of the Duke University arts and sciences faculty and nearly all of the mainstream print media in America quickly organized themselves into a hanging party. Throughout the spring of 2006 and indeed well into the late summer, Nifong had the nearly unanimous backing of this country's (and especially Duke's) intellectual elite as he explored his lurid theories of sexual predation and racist stonewalling.

"They fed off each other," said Steven Baldwin, a Duke chemistry professor who finally broke his faculty colleagues' own wall of silence on October 24, publishing a letter in the Duke student newspaper, the Chronicle, denouncing his fellow professors for what he called their "shameful" treatment of Seligmann and Finnerty and rebuking the Duke administration for having "disowned its lacrosse-playing student athletes." In April, Duke president and English professor Richard Brodhead had abruptly suspended not only Seligmann and Finnerty but also the remainder of the Duke lacrosse season, plus a third player, Ryan McFadyen (also recently reinstated), who had nothing to do with the alleged assault but had made the mistake of sending an email to his teammates on the early morning of March 14 describing a plan to "kill" and "skin" some "strippers" in his dorm room (like the "cotton shirt" remark, this was another tasteless joke, parodying Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho). That same day, April 5, Brodhead told the lacrosse team's coach, Michael Pressler, that he had until the end of the day to leave campus for good.

"The faculty enabled Nifong," Baldwin said in an interview. "He could say, 'Here's a significant portion of the arts and sciences faculty who feel this way, so I can go after these kids because these faculty agree with me.' It was a mutual attitude."