New Twists in Lacrosse Case

January 31, 2007
Field work: first day of practice for men's lacrosse

Field work: first day of practice for men's lacrosse. AP Photo / Gerry Broometeam

In mid-January, Michael B. Nifong, the district attorney leading the prosecution of the Duke lacrosse sexual-assault case, asked the state attorney general to take over. Nifong's request followed on the heels of his announcement that he was dropping the rape charge because the accuser was no longer certain about her claim. The accuser claims she was assaulted after performing as a stripper at a team party in March.

His decision "throws new doubt on the future of a bitterly contested prosecution that has already suffered a series of dramatic setbacks," reported The New York Times.

Several weeks earlier, the North Carolina State Bar had filed an ethics complaint against Nifong, taking him to task for his early public comments about the case, including calling the lacrosse players "hooligans" whose "daddies" would "buy them big-time lawyers." The next day, the North Carolina Conference on District Attorneys officially asked him to recuse himself. According to widespread media accounts, Nifong had spoken misleadingly in public about the case, ordered a lineup that violated standard police procedures, refused to meet with defense lawyers as they produced photographs and phone records aimed at proving their clients' innocence, and mishandled exculpatory DNA test results by failing to turn them over to defense lawyers for seven months.

As the semester got under way, the shifting legal scene had reverberations on campus. In a message to the Duke community, President Richard H. Brodhead noted that from the beginning, "the university's response was guided by two principles: that if true, the conduct that had been alleged was grave and should be taken very seriously, and that our students had to be presumed innocent until proven guilty through the legal process." He reiterated an earlier statement in which he criticized the district attorney and noted that "given the certainty with which [he] made his public statements regarding the rape allegation, his decision to drop that charge must call into question the validity of the remaining charges."

In early January, the university offered to reinstate two of the student defendants in the case, Collin Finnerty '08 and Reade Seligmann '08, who had been put on interim suspension pending the outcome. (The third defendant, David Evans, graduated last spring.)

"Interim suspension, the policy measure that had been invoked last April, is not a disciplinary measure or judgment of guilt," Brodhead said in announcing the reinstatement decision. "It is a temporary measure taken when a student is charged with a violent crime, and its use must balance a variety of factors, including the gravity of the charge, the presumption of innocence, the possibility of danger to the student or the community, and the need of students to continue with their education. Although the two students still face serious charges, in the changed circumstances, it seems only right to strike the balance at a different point."

According to media reports, both students declined the offer to return while the legal case remained unresolved.

Early in the spring semester, Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange met with the faculty's Arts and Sciences Council to discuss the case and its impact on campus. Lange noted that some of the early rhetoric, which included "distasteful caricatures" of Duke, its culture, and the wider community, had subsided. But he added that some faculty members, particularly African Americans, had come under repeated personal attacks in e-mail messages and blogs. In some instances, the attacks denigrated the faculty members' scholarship and intellectual credentials; some were "openly threatening or racist."

Much of the criticism centered on the so-called Group of 88—faculty members who signed a Chronicle advertisement, published in the immediate wake of last spring's incident, declaring that "the disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." In January, some of the original signatories and others issued an open letter to the Duke community. The letter reiterated concerns over "an atmosphere that allows sexism, racism, and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus."

Taking a different tone in responding to the original ad, members of the economics department wrote a letter to The Chronicle expressing "regret that the Duke faculty is now seen as prejudiced against certain of its own students." The letter, also published in January, concluded, "We welcome members of the lacrosse team, and all student athletes, as we do all students, as fellow members of the Duke community to the classes we teach and the activities we sponsor."

Lange told the faculty that in the face of external verbal attacks, "there has been a diminished community debate, a narrowing of those willing to speak freely, a reduced sense of shared purpose to overcome our troubles, a loss of the confidence—so often a strength of Duke—that through a shared understanding and effort we can become a better institution."

Duke has "the opportunity to be a leader," he said. "It is therefore even more important now that we regain the powers of self-critical, optimistic, respectful, and broad-based collective debate which have stood us so well in the past. The faculty must be on point, along with the students, in how we think about and arrive at the appropriate measures of reform for our campus culture. That can only happen if we recall how to speak freely to each other as we have in our best moments."