Ruth Sheehan's Silence is Sickening

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Ruth Sheehan: You know.

We know you know.

Whatever has been happening in the newsroom at the News & Observer, you know now that you falsely accused three young men of rape, and you did it with impunity (even if you cannot admit it now). You wrote on March 27 that someone on the Duke University Lacrosse team "needs to come forward and tell the police," because the "silence is sickening."

Yes, Ruth, I know that later you backed off and blamed Michael Nifong on June 19 for all of this confusion. You simply were the victims of an ambitious district attorney who had misled you:

Say all you want about the media’s rush to judgment. But the truth is we report on allegations and charges out of district attorneys’ offices every single day. And when a DA, especially one with Nifong’s reputation for being a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy, comes out not only saying that a rape occurred, but that it was a brutal gang rape, in which the woman was strangled and beaten, you had to figure he had incontrovertible evidence.

Apparently, he didn’t.

Ruth, I’m going to say something about your "rush to judgment." Let’s face it; you wanted those accusations to be true, because they fit the leftist political viewpoint that dominates your newspaper. In early stories, reporters referred to the accuser as the "victim," not the "alleged victim" which is supposed to be the journalistic standard for these kinds of stories.

No, you and the others at the N&O jumped into this story with both feet, and you did it with great anticipation. Please do not say that you did not accuse anyone of anything; all you need to do is to re-read your March 27 column. Do you remember writing the following?

But I can see loyal team members sitting around convincing themselves that it would be disloyal to turn on their teammates — why, the guys who were involved were just a little “over the top.” In real life, they’re funny. They call their mothers once a week. They share class notes with friends. They attend church.

On this night, they were just a little too drunk, a little too “worked up.” It was a scene straight out of “I am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe. Indicative of the times.

The alleged racial epithets slung at the strippers, who were black? Those were just … jokes. Ditto for the ugly remarks overheard by a neighbor: “Thank your grandpa for my cotton shirt.” Har, har.

After all, these guys are not just Duke students, but student athletes. The collegiate dream.

And the women? They were… strippers, for Pete’s sake.

I can see the team going down this path, justifying its silence. And it makes me sick.

Because, of all the occupational hazards that must come with stripping, one of them should not be rape. And no, forced sex by a hunky prep student doesn’t make it better.

Unfortunately, because the team members are students at such a fine university, there is a tendency to presume that this was an aberration. That these players are “good guys.”

I see it in the references to the “Animal House” atmosphere allowed to flourish at the team captains’ house.

Ruth, there is no "alleged" anywhere in your comments. No, the players raped that woman. You "knew" that these athletes were rapists, didn’t you?

By the way, if you are going to reference a Tom Wolfe novel, perhaps Bonfire of the Vanities is more appropriate. He even had an Al Sharpton character in that book, and, guess what, Al Sharpton has been a player in this case, something you have missed so far in your columns.

Of course, you have backed off a bit since your over-the-top comments, but they are still there in print. Furthermore, since your display of righteous indignation ("How dare these rapists hide behind their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights! Confess! Confess!"), you later decided that all of this really is nothing more than a game between lawyers and a prosecutor.

First, you told everyone they need to "shut up." In other words, people who clearly are falsely accused in Ruthworld should not be permitted to mount a defense, especially if it does not fall within the bounds of "political correctness." Ruth, I hate to tell you this, but this is no game. Three young men who are falsely accused of rape are literally fighting against the powers of the State of North Carolina for their very lives.

In that column, you make fun of Joe Cheshire, the attorney for David Evans, who is one of the falsely accused lacrosse players. Yes, this is the same Joe Cheshire who was involved in the Alan Gell case (see below), when prosecutors falsely accused Gell of murder. Or what about Kirk Osborne, who represents Reade Seligmann? Ruth, he also was an attorney representing Dawn Wilson, another victim of prosecutorial misconduct in North Carolina.

Second, I can tell from your columns that this is not a very big deal. But, then, the false imprisonment of people in North Carolina is not a big deal. Where were you when prosecutor Nancy Lamb was lying in a courtroom in her false prosecution of Robert Kelly and Wilson in the Edenton affair? When have you ever doubted the prosecutors?

What about the prosecutorial misconduct in the Darryl Hunt and Gell cases? The misconduct with Gell was so bad that the North Carolina legislature passed a law ordering the prosecutors to turn over all of their evidence to defense lawyers because prosecutors deliberately had withheld exculpatory evidence. That is why Nifong does not that “stash of evidence” that you write might exist, or at least you seem to hope exists.

Ruth, do you want to talk about kidnapping or crimes of violence? Don’t you think that using the state apparatus to falsely imprison someone and try to have them put to death is violence? In the Gell case, governor Mike Easley (who shares your political views, by the way) was in charge of the prosecution team that withheld the evidence.

Moreover, in your own article about Gell’s retrial and acquittal it seems that you give the prosecution much more of the benefit of the doubt than they deserve even after all the misconduct was exposed. You see, Ruth, the reason that the defense has been given all the information which they have made public (and which you seem they should not be permitted to do) is because of the Gell case. The State of North Carolina seems to have a problem with dishonest prosecutors, wouldn’t you agree?

Ruth, if you want to read someone who really cares about right and wrong, and about justice, you might want to read Keith Hoggard’s column in the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald. Hoggard got it right, you see, when he wrote:

Sending an innocent man to death row by withholding evidence is not just lamentable, it is unconscionable. It is criminal. Yet, nothing is being done to seek justice. The people of North Carolina have spent thousands of dollars to convict a man the prosecutors knew could not be found guilty if all the evidence were presented. The people of North Carolina spent hundreds of thousands of dollars holding a man in a death row jail cell for four years who should not have been there.

And then the people of North Carolina spent several more thousand dollars to try a man for a murder no sane jury would convict him of given the evidence.

This is a far more important issue than the harm done to Alan Gell. It is even far more critical than finding the person or persons who murdered Allen Ray Jenkins.

What has been done here strikes at the very heart of our judicial system. When prosecutors utilize the power of the state to seek a conviction rather than to seek justice, we are all put at risk. We rely on our law enforcement and judicial officials to put aside what they believe so that justice can prevail. When the system breaks down – as all systems sometimes do – it must be fixed.

This is pretty eloquent and powerful stuff, Ruth, wouldn’t you agree? I can’t say that I ever have read anything like that on your page. (Your "Team’s Silence is Sickening" column was not eloquent. It was pathetic. "Too Late to Put a Sock in It" stinks, too.) Did you ever call for the prosecutors to be punished, even when their behavior was criminal, even after your own paper documented in the prosecution’s own words that they had deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence — and didn’t think anything was wrong with that?

You moan about being a victim of Nifong, you accuse innocent people of rape, and then you tell their attorneys to "shut up" even as they are pointing out the obvious: Nifong is lying, and has been lying from the start. While you might have believed Nifong at the beginning, it is obvious now that the entire set of charges is a lie, a very bad lie, even if you cannot get yourself to admit what clearly is true.

I would like to say that I hope to read your column if these charges ever are dismissed, or the young men are found "not guilty" in court (something that will be difficult, given its racial politics). However, to be honest, I would hope that you never write a column again.

Ruth, if you had even an ounce of integrity, your resignation, along with that of your executive editor, Melanie Still (who proclaims that she is "proud" of the horrible coverage the N&O has given this case), would be on someone’s desk today. If you want to find work afterward, let me suggest that you go work for Mike Nifong or some other prosecutor in North Carolina, say Nancy Lamb. After all, I think you would be a perfect fit as one of their PR mouths. You already have proven to be a great shill for a dishonest prosecutor; it’s time to start being paid for it.

August 7, 2006

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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