Duke Lacrosse: Metanarratives, the Telephone Effect, and the Falsely Accused

Clarence W uses the example of the Duke Lacrosse rape case to talk about the dangers and implications of stories that get politicized.

The rape case against the Duke Lacrosse team in 2006 provides a good example to explore the many ways that the politicization of social and sexual issues can hurt those falsely accused of a crime. Because the case has been covered here and many other places I will give only the basic information.

In March of 2006, the Duke Lacrosse Team threw a party in Durham, North Carolina at which they invited two strippers and served alcohol. Two sex workers showed up, there was a very abbreviated performance, accusations of assault and rape on the part of one of the sex workers, massive press coverage due to race, class, and gender issues, the cancellation of the season, three indicted players, and eventually the disbarring of a prosecutor based on misconduct as the charges were dropped. Evidence brought forth by the defendants included the lack of any team DNA in the alleged victim but plenty of DNA from other men, inconsistent stories by the accuser and alibis that included time stamped photographs, dorm swipe cards, cell phone records and, finally, testimony against a rape having occurred by the other sex worker. A timeline of the alleged assault can be found here, and here is the report that exonerated the players: NC Attorney Generals report. Over the years, the Duke case provides a sobering reminder of how false accusations can permanently destroy a person or groups reputation as well as how criminal investigations can be politicized.

There are several incorrect beliefs about the facts of that case that continue to be repeated when the case is brought up whether in the mainstream press, the blogosphere or elsewhere on the net, or television. Because people have the facts wrong, this often affects their opinion of whether or not justice was done in the case and casts unnecessary pallor over the defendants. Because of space considerations I can only cover a few of the bigger ones.

First, from a very early point on in the investigation, the players fully cooperated, at first without even having legal counsel. There seems to be confusion about this as this Nancy Grace show transcript shows: Nancy Grace. However, as shown by an email here, the Duke University Administration knew from very early on that the players were cooperating with the police.

Another thing that is often brought up against the Duke players is the infamous email by Ryan McFadyen where he talks of killing and flaying strippers. Many, including some feminists have taken this to be evidence of pre-meditation, esp. early on in the case. However, the email was sent after the party, included a paraphrase from American Psycho, and was sent in the context of a series of emails complaining about the dance after what probably was a very harrowing and unpleasant experience.

The context around the racial slurs is also misunderstood. The television show 60 Minutes has more on this on page three of this transcript, where the second dancer, Kim Roberts speaks about her impressions of the party.

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If you are like most people, you’ve probably followed this case little if at all, and your memory is likely very rusty. Thus, at this point you probably believe – if you remember the case at all – that the team specifically asked for black strippers, that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to proceed, that all the lacrosse players were rich, that one of the three defendants sent an email talking about hurting a stripper, and etc.  As can be seen from my various links, none of these things were true. For instance, while many details of the attack were changed over time as Crystal Mangum’s stories changed, the fact is it always remained a forcible gang rape. Thus, the often-repeated statement that “not all sex crimes leave DNA” does not apply to this case. DNA can’t prove a rape in terms of “he-said” and “she-said” rape cases, which focus on consent and where sexual contact is admitted by the defendant(s), but it can clear or damn people when they claim no sexual contact whatever occurred. The lack of any DNA from a lacrosse player in or on the alleged victim or her clothing when she claimed a brutal multiple person rape is damning–for her story.

Anyway, here it is nearly 6 years later, and despite this information being pretty easy to look up on the net and available via public documents of all types, there’s a great many people who still believe a bunch of racist frat boys raped/and or assaulted a stripper and got away with it either due to the incompetence of the prosecution, or to sheer monetary legal power. This goes to show just how damaging a false accusation can be to ones reputation and life, esp. in a media saturated, instantaneous information age. Alas, for these players as for anyone who gets widespread notoriety, they are often the victims of an unwitting game of telephone. People are not perfect at transmitting, receiving, or remembering information. And we all have some sort of mental biases that we filter events through. There’s also historical considerations: to an extent the Duke Lacrosse teams of the past had a mixed reputation on the Duke campus and so the players of the 2006 squad suffered for that notoriety, though perhaps a bit unfairly as the Duke instigated Coleman Report concluded.

But there’s more to it than just that. Stories that make national news often seem to have political or sociological ramifications, although which ones are often disagreed on. The temptation is to try to make the events match a “metanarrative” – an abstract idea that is an all-encompassing story of why and how things happen, a “larger picture”, if you will- that will benefit ones political or social philosophy. To the detriment of the Duke lacrosse players and justice their story got caught up in such larger considerations.

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It’s arguable as to how many different metanarratives were applied by various political factions to the Duke case, but arguably the biggest were race, class, athletic entitlement, and sex – mostly through the “rape culture” meme. Arguably, most feminists and people on the left favored a “mixed” metanarrative containing the concepts of race, privilege, and patriarchy. As an example, the blog Justice 4 Two Sisters examined and wrote about the Duke case almost exclusively from the point of view of a black woman and saw the allegations against the Duke team as being little more than an example of systematic racial oppression.

When the allegations broke in March of 2006 feminist blogs, as an example Feministe, were full of sound and fury, “entitlement”, “rape culture”, etc. As the case went on, from June or July 2006 if not before, however, I found a curious thing:  silence reigned. After the charges were dismissed, after the prosecutor was disbarred, and after the team was exonerated, I took stock. Whether multiple authors or one contributed posts to the feminist blog, few had apologized for the generally pro-prosecution stance they had assumed from the beginning. Some feminists stonewalled, insisting on guilt, some tried to change the subject, insisting that well, maybe the team weren’t rapists but “something happened” Feministe1yearlater, but most just ignored it, esp. after the Attorney Generals report came out. Of course some feminists such as equity feminist Cathy Young had always objectively surveyed the evidence and didn’t need to apologize or hide in the first place.

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Conservative, libertarian, anti-feminist, MRA, and rightwing blogs in general varied in how they treated the case. Some were immediately skeptical, an example being Rush Limbaugh. Others, being of a more law and order bent initially backed the prosecution and used the case to speak of their own narratives of female vulnerability to male sexual predation, etc, however, almost invariably as time went on they shifted to a more “pro-defendant” stance.

The “mainstream press” was also all over the place in terms of the accuracy of their coverage. Talking heads such as Nancy Grace often disgraced themselves with slanted or inaccurate coverage. Meanwhile, the flagship news organs of the old guard, such as the New York Times often dropped the ball. The New York Times coverage was basically abysmal, to the extent that two editors for the paper felt that they had to address it. First, on April 22, 2007 the public editor acknowledged that some of the reporting was not up to standard:

“In one striking instance in the article, however, The Times decided Sergeant Gottlieb’s “case notes,” apparently based on his memory, were more credible than the handwritten notes of a fellow police investigator, Officer Benjamin Himan. Mr. Wilson said he had been told that the sergeant relied “largely” on Officer Himan’s handwritten notes when the two of them met the accuser on March 16 of last year to ask her to describe her attackers. Officer Himan’s handwritten notes show she described all three as chubby or heavyset, although one of the three eventual defendants was tall and skinny.

“In Sergeant Gottlieb’s version of the same conversation, however, her [the accuser’s] descriptions closely correspond to the defendants” and included one who was tall and skinny, the Aug. 25 article reported. So the Times article prominently listed Sergeant Gottlieb’s recollection of the accuser’s mentioning a tall and skinny attacker as one of three revelations from the prosecution files that showed the documents contained “evidence stronger than that highlighted by the defense.” Despite the paper’s full disclosure of the sergeant’s aversion to note-taking, I find that news judgment flawed — one allowing critics to foster a perception of the paper as leaning toward Mr. Nifong.”

Later, Tom Jolly, the Sports Editor further apologized for how the Times covered the rape accusation. Meanwhile, two local papers provided a rather stark contrast in how they covered it with the Herald Sun assuming a mostly pro-Nifong stance and the Raleigh News Observer running much less credulous stories. What all this shows is that the policies or prejudices of an editor can affect how allegations against a criminal defendant are presented to the public by a news organ.

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There are also processes in the criminal justice system of the USA that came into play in this case. For one, the Grand Jury process differs quite a bit from state to state. A Grand Jury is an empanelled group of citizens whose job is to decide if enough evidence exists to bring charges. Testimony is considered evidence, however, and that’s just the first of the problems that exist in many states. The Lacrosse cases took place in North Carolina and in North Carolina Grand Juries only hear the prosecution side of a case, and are not recorded so perjury by law enforcement is a very real worry. Perhaps things like that are the reason it is often said that one can “indict a ham sandwich”, but, regardless, to this day some people regard the fact that the Grand Jury returned an indictment as some sort of evidence that something must have happened in the case. At least one part of the “common wisdom” about the case appears to be true however: though not all of the Lacrosse team was rich, some were, and they all stuck together. The excellent counsel made available to the three defendants helped to uncover some of the Prosecutorial misconduct, something that would not likely have happened if the defendants had been poor.

The last part of the case I want to touch on is the damage done to a defendant via false accusations. This is over and above the arguments concerning incidence of such accusations, and is exacerbated by policies, some legal, some voluntary on the part of news organizations against releasing accuser’s names without extending similar protection to the accused. A good article on the damage a false accusation can do when irresponsibly covered is here, and I think the evidence is pretty vast that the great majority of the press did not cover the Duke case responsibly, at least not early on. It is a fact that moves to try to extend the same protections to accused rapists have often been opposed by some feminists.

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So, in the end, what can we take away from the Duke false rape case? I’m afraid the answers aren’t very comforting. Justice in America is often the result of processes that discriminate on the basis of income and sometimes race, many processes arguably need reformed, and some groups seem more interested in pushing their political positions than in the facts of a case–so often, if your case is notorious enough to be noticed and covered by even just your local press more than a line or two in the crime section that is a bad thing. Lastly, should your case be dismissed or you be found innocent, rumors and lies will almost certainly circulate for years, partly because of human biases and laziness. It’s easier to condemn than to investigate. I hope someday soon we can begin changing that.

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About Clarence W

Clarence W is a long time resident of Baltimore who occasionally has worked in and written about the technology fields and is a long time commenter on "gender" issues at various blogs. He followed the Duke case almost daily for about a year back in 2006.

Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I followed the case, partly on Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland, probably the best source of all, and on feminist blogs.
    Watching the feminists’ vitriol as they watched the case disappear was amazing.
    It convinced me that few people are honestly misinformed. They believe what they want to believe, and as with most feminists who commented, don’t have the slightest interest in the facts.

  2. David Byron says:

    I never took an interest in the case. Just figured it was probably another witch hunt. I’m pretty good at sensing that stuff but with a criminal case with a man accused by a woman it’s the same as a case where the US is accusing North Korea. The accusations can be anything at all because the media is never going to do anything but take one side. As a result there’s simply no point paying any attention to the accusation until there’s real evidence and you’ve heard the other side of the story. And that’s a pretty good level of skepticism in general.

  3. To me, perhaps the most interesting reaction was on the part of the Duke Faculty.

    Shortly after the accusations, the “Group of 88″ professors posted the “Social Disaster” ad in the school newspaper. At least one of the professors insisted on referring to the lacrosse students as “hooligans” and “rapists” well after the truth had come out.

    The most interesting part, to me, is that the group included a majority of the staff in the African Studies, African American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Anthropology programs.

    No faculty members joined the group from the Engineering, Anatomy, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Neuroscience, Psychology, or Law programs.

    Indeed, after the truth came out, 17 members of the economics department issued a letter in support of the players that apologized for the conduct of their colleagues.

    To me this was really instructive of the great divide in academia, between those departments that are actually interested in analyzing evidence to get at the truth, and those departments that are interested in advancing a narrative-based agenda. It’s been incredibly difficult for me to take Gender Studies (and other narrative-based fields) seriously ever since.

    • When Duke Lacrosse case happened, I was not in the U.S., but reading about it in newspaper and on the Internet, it seemed as if the prosecutor had lot of clinching evidence due to which he was sure of getting the accused convicted. But as the investigation progressed it became clear everything was a sham. I lost my trust in all media. After reading the case of New York McDonald’s beating in newspapers and watching the YouTube video, I came to the final conclusion that media was totally biased against men, and truth was dispensable.

      You are absolutely correct in pointing the great divide in academia, as a member of academic I confirm it. In my opinion, those academic streams which you mentioned before do not form any part of education, they constitute just political indoctrination. They should start Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry and teach these subjects there exclusively and leave real universities for real education.

    • DavidByron says:

      That’s terrible if true because those faculty members have a duty of care and they didn’t just fail to protect those kids but actually turned on them. You should get fired for that. Also of course it’s pretty lousy that people who are supposed to be studying human interactions are often so hopeless at figuring them out. It does seem like evidence that they aren’t studying anything at all but just preaching, and preaching bad religion at that.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      They should press a libel action against them. Noone should be called a rapist in public like that.

  4. John Sctoll says:

    Rare: Coming or occurring far apart in time; unusual; uncommon: a rare disease; His visits are rare occasions.

    That is a word that brings up a meaning when you hear it. For me I have my own definition. I won’t give that here but point out a recent discussion of the word with some offline friends regarding “Fault accusation of rape are rare”. Those friends pointed me to studies that show that false accustions are between 8 – 10% of all accusations.

    Let look at that though, lets assume for the argument that it is 9% (in the middle between the two numbers) but really is a 9% occurance of something really rate. After all it means 9 out of every 100 is a false accusation. Is that really rare. Lets put this into perspective.

    Lets say you live in a town that has a single crosswalk, the number of people that cross this crosswalk every year is the same as the number of rape accusations (whatever that number happens to be). Now I feel pretty confident saying that if 9 out of every 100 people that crossed that crosswalk got hit by a car , making it 9% , then I highly doubt anyone would say that it is “RARE” that people got hit at that intersection.

    This too me is the crux of the argument about false accusation, even if we were to us the already much discredited 2% number, is that really rare anyway. Again look at the cross walk analogy. If 2 out of a 100 got hit, it would never be called rare.

    This I think is the whole problem with false accusaton, they effect a large number of men each year, those men are destroyed by these accusation and by calling them rare people are further victimizing those men. I don’t mean to be callous about women who are raped but quite frankly the fact that some pundits say we shouldn’t prosecute false accusers because it will harm women who have actually been raped is kinda like saying we should prosecute insurance fraudsters because it might harm real people who have valid insurance claims.

    • I’m going to agree it’s probably not less than the 8 percent number as much as some feminists might like to think so. There are incentives to lie about it, and the lies are rarely punished -even more rare is a punishment beyond “community service”, though I know that some are imprisoned once in a blue moon, usually for, at most, a year – so its going to happen with some frequency, and probably an uncomfortably high one. That’s why, at this point, I always fight any more attempts to farther restrict the rights of those accused. We’ve been doing that for 30 years now, and its manifestly led to unjust convictions, and yet, supposedly, the problem of rape and the problem of not reporting it is as large as ever. So it’s not working. Lets try something else.

  5. Under Archy’s fun world of leadership, ANY reporting of names of the accused or accusers would be punishable. I cannot stand trial by media, both the accuser and the accused should have full anonymity and if they are guilty, then you can talk about them. I especially wish this were true for accusations of child sexual abuse, here in Australia an accusation like that makes you a pariah instantly. There is a valid reason why men fear false rape accusations, even though they’re rarer than real accusations it still is a genuine fear of most men who do not believe they will rape someone.

    Punishing willful false accusations (not ones that simply fail on evidence, but ones that are admitted to) is necessary, keeping everyone anonymous ensures the least amount of bias because a jury cannot have bias. A person’s reputation should never be destroyed on the basis of an accusation, but we have a witch hunt society that makes that a reality sadly.

    I totally support going after rapists, but I also totally support ensuring protection of innocents and that means the accused until proven guilty. There is NO benefit to publishing their name, ever. Society does not need to know who is on trial for rape, if that person is under danger then the police can monitor them or arrest them, otherwise STFU and allow justice to be done. If they are innocent and found innocent at trial, their name should NOT be talked about, you don’t have to know Joe Bloe is on trial, or was on trial and found innocent unless Joe Bloe tells you and shows you proof from court documents.

    Sometimes I really hate the media, the trial of a sex offender here was put in jeopardy by the media biasing the general public.

    That said I view the witch-hunt behaviour to be sickening, I lost all respect for certain authors after reading their comments on such matters. People were so hungry for blood they shot the innocents in the process and feasted on their pain, but good luck for most of them to admit they were wrong and publicly write an article about it. They should ALL be writing an apology to those players, removing the offending articles and doing their best to restore the reputation of those players.

    • That said I view the witch-hunt behaviour to be sickening, I lost all respect for certain authors after reading their comments on such matters. People were so hungry for blood they shot the innocents in the process and feasted on their pain, but good luck for most of them to admit they were wrong and publicly write an article about it. They should ALL be writing an apology to those players, removing the offending articles and doing their best to restore the reputation of those players.
      Well there was this one feminist that did the second half of your suggestion. She sure hell removed her offending articles but as far as I know she never apologized or even admitted to backing the wrong horse. She’s written here a few times in fact….

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      There are some benefits, the same benefits that apply to having the name of the accuser be made public knowledge: It allows people with a possible connection to the case and potential character witnesses to come forward.

      I would say, however, that if the crime is serious enough to consider protecting the identity of the accuser then the accused deserves similar protection.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tammy Bruce has said that organized feminism exists to serve the progressive agenda. If women’s issues are helpful, organized feminism will push the issue. If women’s issues are not helpful for a particular point, organized feminism will ignore women’s issues.
    The progressive narrative–demonstrating the white man’s sexual violence against black women–needed to be pushed hard, which accounts for feminism’s energy in the issue Duke lax hoax. However, concerning the rape of Duke student Katie Rouse, who is white, at about the same time, by a bladk man at a black fraternity house, demonstrates the meme of black men’s sexual violence against women,which is why feminists ignored their dishonored and raped sister, as did the university.
    All depends on the narrative. The actual facts are irrelevant.

    • Yes but there are interesting complications. Like for instance Street Harassment. The primary street harassers are black men.. And street harassment legislation will primarily hurt black men and minorities. So here we see feminists basically targetting the minorities and the lower class. But I supposed all of this is fine because feminism is a growth industry and street harassment is just the latest feminist crusade.

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