During a legal conference held at Duke in late September, President Richard H. Brodhead responded to critics who have continued to question his handling of the Duke lacrosse incident.
The case highlighted "crucial problems of our culture—problems of achieving justice in a media-saturated society, problems of fundamental fairness to individuals, and problems in the way the American public is informed and misinformed about the world we live in," Brodhead said in his first public comment about the case since the disbarment and resignation of former Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong.
"As president, I had responsibility for the statements the university made and the actions the university took in a virtually unprecedented situation, and I take responsibility for them now.
"When a case like this is over, it's tempting to think that the facts so clearly established at the end of the day must have been equally clear throughout the process. This was not the case," he continued. Given uncertainty and "the tides of passionate prejudgment the DA's comments and media accounts touched off," Brodhead said he "staked out a position on behalf of the university that contained three principles. First, the type of crime that had been alleged had no place in our community. Second, the presumption of innocence is fundamental to our legal system, and our students were entitled to that presumption. And third, this whole matter had to be entrusted to the criminal justice system for its resolution."
With the innocence of the players now firmly established and the district attorney discredited, Brodhead said his own biggest regret was "our failure to reach out to the lacrosse players and their families in this time of extraordinary peril. Given the complexities of the case, getting this communication right would never have been easy. But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they most needed support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize."
In the wake of the lacrosse incident, a group of eighty-eight faculty members published an ad in The Chronicle arguing that racist incidents and sexual assault are elements of the campus culture. The "Group of 88" has since been criticized for having presumed the lacrosse players guilty of the crimes alleged. In his speech, Brodhead said "we could have done more to underscore" that members of the Duke community who were "quick to speak as if the charges were true" were not speaking for the university as a whole.
Brodhead's talk was part of a conference on the practice and ethics of trying cases in the media held at Duke Law School on Founders' Day weekend. Also among the audience were members of Duke's board of trustees.
The lacrosse case "has taught me a hard lesson about the criminal justice system and what it means to rely on it," Brodhead said. "Given the media circus and the public reactions it fed, I thought it essential to insist that the matter be resolved within the legal system, not in the court of public opinion. As far as it went, this was right. But what this case reminds us is that our justice system—the best in the world—is only as good as the men and women who administer it."
In retrospect, Brodhead said, "Duke needed to be clear that it demanded fair treatment for its students. I took that for granted. If any doubted it, then I should have been more explicit, especially as evidence mounted that the prosecutor was not acting in accordance with the standards of his profession."
November 30, 2007