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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.