Track back: the Duke lacrosse scandal

When Ray Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Reagan, was acquitted of highly publicized corruption charges in 1987 he asked, plaintively: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

It’s a question that several individuals and organizations involved in the Duke lacrosse scandal may be asking in the future.

The situation began in March, when an African-American stripper first alleged that three white Duke players had raped her at a team party; Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong brought indictments against players Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans (who have all protested their innocence); Duke’s president Richard Brodhead cancelled the lacrosse season; Newsweek magazine put the story on its cover (with mug shots of the accused players), and cable news and the Web focused on the more prurient aspects of the scandal.

Some of the national interest in the story, as I noted in early June, came because the Duke lacrosse scandal “raises submerged questions of race, class disparity, campus cultural and sexual mores, and the workings of our criminal justice system.”

Since the rape charges were filed, Nifong’s case against the players has not fared well under scrutiny. Most observers believe he is losing the battle for public opinion. Whether Nifong has additional evidence that has not been revealed, or whether he miscalculated by relying so heavily on the testimony of alleged victim, is not yet clear.

As an example of the shift in opinion, columnist Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, who began presuming guilt, changed her mind:

The paucity of physical evidence; the accuser’s prior unsubstantiated rape charge; her changing stories that night; sloppy and unreliable identification procedures — any of these alone, and certainly all of them together, make it hard to understand why the prosecution is going forward and impossible to imagine that it could win a conviction.

Nifong is not backing down; he recently won the right to “subpoena the home address of any uncharged player he plans to call as a witness.” There are several possible interpretations of that legal move: Nifong may have specific witnesses on the team he wants to question; or he may be on a fishing expedition to try to find that “one honest man” who will back up the accuser’s story. Nifong has said he is looking to try the case in the spring of 2007; the attorney for Reade Seligmann has filed a motion for an earlier date.

Rumors that the accuser might back down appear to be just that–rumors. A report in The Wilmington Journal quoted the cousin of the accuser who claims that Duke alumni had offered the accuser $2 million in “hush money” to drop the charges, but that she had refused. (The newspaper reports: “The alleged victim told her family the trial must proceed, and she wants justice done. Because she remains in seclusion, the alleged victim could not be reached for comment.”)

Restoring Reputations?

Duke University is already moving to restore its reputation as a school which strikes the proper balance between academics and athletics in its sports program. The scandal surfaced a disturbing pattern of behavior by lacrosse players, and when Brodhead decided to continue fielding a men’s lacrosse team, it was with the precondition of new, tough rules governing conduct by the players.

The appointment of John Danowski, a successful coach at Hofstra (and father of the Blue Devils’ rising senior attackman Matt Danowski), as the new Duke men’s lacrosse head coach represents another positive step. Danowski is an experienced coach and he told ESPN:

We’ve always operated in the past under the rules of common sense and human dignity. When you apply those to the rules they’ve [the players] put in place, it actually becomes more strict. But I really don’t foresee any problems. I don’t think anybody wants to be the guy to let everyone down.

The reality is, however, that the “healing process”–as Danowski called it–can commence only after the outcome of the legal process, a point that the former Hofstra coach concedes.

The strange case of Reade Seligmann

Some observers have questioned why Nifong brought charges against Reade Seligmann, a Blue Devils player with, apparently, a fairly strong alibi for the period of time when the rape allegedly occurred. Seligmann’s lawyers say Nifong would not look at the potentially exculpatory evidence before the rape charges were filed.

More than that, Seligmann is the most unlikely of suspects: he was known as the team “straight arrow,” and had apparently wavered on whether or not he would attend the team party at all.

Seligmann, his family, and other supporters have made a strong case for his innocence. An article published in the New York Times (in its N.Y./Region section) on July 16 by Peter Applebome (“As Accusation at Duke Festers, Disbelief Gnaws at Suspect’s Supporters”) highlighted the evidence supporting Seligmann.

On the surface, the most obvious disparity is that records, photographs and eyewitnesses’ accounts from his cellphone, a taxi driver, an A.T.M. and his electronic dorm entry card seem to show that he was either on the phone or far from the party virtually the entire time the attack is to have occurred. (Lawyers for both the other accused players say they have compelling alibis and have passed polygraph tests claiming their innocence.)

After Applebome discloses to his readers that he is a Duke graduate, and his son currently attends the school, he continues:

But you don’t need ties to Duke to look at details that have emerged about the case — the accuser’s history of past accusations and differing accounts of the crime, a lack of DNA evidence, a police lineup of only Duke lacrosse players, a second dancer’s original statement saying no rape could have occurred — and come away queasy.

Maybe he and the others are the monstrous incarnation of white, male privilege, or maybe this has become a cautionary tale of a rush to judgment before facts were known, of a toxic brew of politics and race in the middle of an election for district attorney.

There are a number of possible explanations for the situation. While it seems unlikely, Seligmann may be guilty as charged–“nice kids” can do horrific things under the influence of alcohol and group pressure (look no further than some of the frat hazing incidents that have led to deaths). My guess is that Nifong accepted the accuser’s photo identification of Seligman as solid proof. It is also possible that a rape did occur at the party, but that Seligman was not involved, and the alleged victim misidentified him. It is possible that the accuser has fabricated the entire incident.

What is the truth? That probably will not emerge until the trial, and Seligmann’s eagerness to have his day in court suggests he expects vindication.

The sad fact, however, is that even if Seligmann is cleared of the charges, his reputation will never be the same. As Ray Donovan’s quote suggests, once you have been publicly identified in a criminal case there are always lingering doubts and unanswered questions. Jack Kennedy had it right: sometimes life isn’t fair.

Track backs are updates on recent stories covered in Neither Red nor Blue.

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