The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities. By William D. Cohan, New York: Scribner, 672 pages, 2014.
Jane Mayer of the New Yorker thought she knew the important facts of the infamous Duke Lacrosse Case of 2006 and 2007. So did the rest of us. You know, a mentally-ill and drug-addicted African-American stripper named Crystal Mangum, falsely accused three Duke University lacrosse players of beating and raping her. The Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong, who was trying to win the Democratic primary in three weeks and who was behind in the race, decided to exploit the case in order to win the election.
After charging three players with rape in April and May 2006, Nifong tried to push the case to trial, but during a hearing in December, a number of his lies were exposed, the North Carolina State Bar charged him with numerous violations of his office. Roy Cooper, the North Carolina attorney general, took over the case and handed the investigation to a couple of experienced prosecutors who ultimately concluded that the charges were bogus and told Cooper to declare openly that the accused players were “innocent,” which Cooper did in April 2007. Two months later, the State Bar disbarred Nifong. Several years later, Mangum was convicted of murdering her boyfriend and now is in prison.
That was the story we thought we knew, but Mayer apparently knows better now. Why? She has read William D. Cohan’s new book, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities. This is a book that Publisher’s Weekly has declared to be: “Top-notch investigative journalism (that) defines this examination of ‘one of the most improbable legal sagas in American history’….”
Mayer declares: “For the first time, Cohan gets many of the central characters to speak—and what they have to say is eye-opening.” Indeed, Cohan does get the “central characters to speak,” and they speak often throughout the book. Who are these “central characters”? They are Crystal Mangum and Michael Nifong. Ignoring that disturbing fact, the New York Times tells readers the book is “gripping,” while the Washington Post says it is “authoritative.”
Yes, it is “authoritative” in the way that having O.J. Simpson be the chief storyteller of the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman or Ben Bernanke explaining why the housing bubble occurred would be authoritative. The sources cannot be trusted to tell the truth, but Cohan dismisses the obvious and literally makes the accuracy of the narrative depend upon their words. And, hey, they have a story to tell, but it is not an account of what really happened.
Before looking at portions of the book and debunking them, I need to point out that the fawning reviews Cohan has received tell us more about the Mainstream Progressive Media than we ever need to know. In a story where the facts – yes, just the FACTS, ma’am – are out there to see, Cohan can write a piece that insinuates that at least one of those dastardly lacrosse players raped or at least sexually assaulted Mangum and got away with it. If there is evidence that acquits the players, well, Cohan magically makes it disappear and brings science fiction to the table. That two of the accused, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty had photographic and digital evidence showing they were not at the house when they supposedly were raping Mangum is dismissed by Cohan as proof of guilt. Why? He quotes Nifong, who tells him that a “guilty person” is going to desperately search for an alibi.
As for the hard fact that the DNA of neither Seligmann nor Finnerty was found in the bathroom where the assault allegedly took place nor on Mangum’s body nor in her vagina and mouth is said to be irrelevant. The only DNA that matters to Cohan, it seems, is the DNA “mixture” on a fake fingernail that Mangum had tossed into the bathroom trash can, a mixture that included David Evans, the other player who was charged and who lived in that house and used the bathroom regularly, but also contained the DNA of 14 other people. (That did not keep Nancy Grace from declaring on her show that Evans’ skin was found under Mangum’s real fingernails.)
Then there was the “magic” towel. Police found a towel in the house that had Evans’ semen on it. However, it did not have the DNA of anyone else and certainly not the DNA of Crystal Mangum. In other words, it was a real red herring. However, the New York Times and now Cohan have insisted that the towel was “evidence” that Mangum was telling the truth. If the narrative were true – that Evans had wiped his semen off Mangum after ejaculating – then almost surely Mangum’s own DNA would have been on that towel. So, readers of The Newspaper of Record and Cohan’s book apparently are supposed to believe that this was a “magic” towel that could keep the DNA of one person but make someone else’s DNA profile disappear.
Yes, the same Progressive media that claims it loves science is willing to substitute alchemy for science when the political narrative demands it, and anyone who dissents is, well, a racist or an apology for rape, drunkenness, and whatever else is bad. Cohan’s book is well-received by the same journalists who were willing to rush to judgment and condemned the lacrosse players when the story first broke in 2006. It is not surprising, but it is depressing to watch supposedly “respected” journalists once again turn into fiction writers.
Cohan is not a minor player in journalism. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a best-selling author. The man is respected by other writers and is a star in the New York City media circles. When Cohan writes, his peers read.
I bring up this point because it forces us to look at the obvious, and that is that “elite” writers, like many “elite” academics and “elite” politicians are not what they claim to be, but since they control the institutional apparatus that employs them, they ultimately can control the conversation. If the truth is not convenient, then the truth is discarded, but always for the “good of the institution.”
So what is all of this “new information” that other journalists tell us is in the book? It turns out, as Susannah Meadows, who covered the story (very badly, for the most part) for Newsweek, notes that Cohan “hasn’t unearthed new evidence. There is still nothing credible to back up the account of an unreliable witness.” Nonetheless, we are expected to believe that Cohan has credibility and has written, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the “magisterial” account of the affair.
Error After Error
A book as long as Cohan’s is going to have errors even if the writer is meticulous, the publisher willing to do fact-checking, and the author takes good, accurate notes. That is the nature of writing long accounts about anything.
This is not what I mean by errors in The Price of Silence, however. Instead, Cohan’s errors are assertions portrayed as fact when they are easily rebuffed. To be honest, the errors are too easily rebuffed, which tells me that Cohan never was after the truth, anyway, and wanted to construct his own narrative that would be palatable to his Progressive friends.
Before I deal with a few assertions, I will point out first that K.C. Johnson – who really is the definitive chronicler of the Duke Lacrosse Case – has taken the book apart in a way that if there were justice in New York City, Cohan would be smeared with tar and feathers and be ridden out of the Big Apple on a rail. Unfortunately, the Progressive media elite will stop up their ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!” just as Nifong literally put his hands to his ears in the presence of the attorneys of the indicted players and told them he was not going to listen to them.
If the readers wish to get some detailed criticism, Johnson provides it in spades. He is one of the few people who has seen the entire case file (except the documents containing Mangum’s medical records, which have not been released – more on this later) and has talked to most of the major players in the case. I make that point to contrast with Cohan’s refusal to talk to people who actually might have something to say.
Cohan Mangles the Dismissal of Charges
Two people to whom Cohan did not speak were Mary Winstead and James Coman, who were the two special prosecutors that Roy Cooper appointed to investigate the charges. Both prosecutors were highly-respected in North Carolina, and at the end of an exhaustive three-month examination, both were unequivocal in their recommendation that Cooper drop the charges – and declare the accused to be “innocent.” Cooper did just that.
The event was pretty straightforward, and while neither Winstead or Coman spoke on the record at that time, it was clear that both approved of Cooper’s actions. However, Cohan knows better, declaring that Cooper truncated the whole process, which should have gone to trial. Joe Neff, who wrote about the case for the Raleigh News & Observer, writes:
Cohan wrote that Cooper “dropped a bombshell” at the news conference by declaring the three players innocent.
In the book, Nifong contends that Cooper declared the players innocent because of pressure from defense lawyers.
“Roy Cooper had some real doubt about what the defense board wanted him to do – that is to declare the boys to be actually innocent – which, of course, is something that’s well beyond the purview of the criminal justice system,” Nifong says in the book. “Roy Cooper would’ve lied if he thought it would help him.”
Nifong said that Cooper’s lead investigators, longtime prosecutors Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, were just as shocked as Nifong by the announcement.
“I have to believe, based on my knowledge of Jim Coman and Mary Winstead, that they were every bit as sandbagged by what happened as I was,” Nifong said.
Indeed, as Neff points out, Cohan already had declared that the State Bar’s assertions that Nifong had withheld exculpatory evidence were, in his words, a “red herring.” Cohan seemed just as ready to believe Nifong’s interpretation of Cooper’s announcement. However, unlike Cohan, Neff contacted James Coman, who told him: “Roy was absolutely appalled at Nifong’s conduct, which gave the North Carolina justice system a black eye.”
Coman, however, was not done speaking, as Neff points out:
Coman said all the physical evidence pointed to innocence – DNA tests; cellphone records of the players and Mangum; photographs and videos; and receipts from a gas station, restaurants and debit cards. One player, whom Coman dubbed “Ansel Adams,” photographed and videoed much of the evening.
“I was just adamant,” Coman said. “She lied, she made up a story, and damn it, we’ve got to do the right and ethical thing.”
It is one thing for Nifong to lie to Cohan. Nifong lied all the way through the lacrosse case, lying to the media, to attorneys, and to judges, and even before the lacrosse case, he was the lead prosecutor in what well may be a wrongful murder conviction that involved prosecutorial misconduct. Darryl Howard was convicted in Durham County in 1995, but investigations have shown that Nifong might have lied and covered up exculpatory evidence.
However, for Cohan to accept not only Nifong’s lies, but Crystal Mangum’s falsehoods and present them as unvarnished truth truly is stunning. Coman was not “sandbagged,” and it is clear that he would have refused to bring the case to trial and to be the appointed prosecutor in a trial. There was no case, and no case means no trial, something that Cohan apparently either does not understand or conveniently lets that important point disappear into an Orwellian Memory Hole.
Cohan also wants readers to think that the defense was hiding dark secrets in the case files that have not been released. (Wendy Murphy, who masquerades as a legal expert on shows like “Nancy Grace” also has made the assertion that the attorneys for the players are hiding their guilt in unreleased files.)
Unfortunately for Cohan, the files contain the medical records of Mangum, which are HIPPA protected and (all parties agree) have nothing to do with the facts of the case. In fact, if the public were to see Mangum’s psychiatric history, there would be even less likelihood that people would believe her.
After Cooper dropped the charges and after Nifong was disbarred, Duke University settled with the three accused for an estimated $18 million. (The actual amount never has been publicly disclosed.) Why Duke would have to settle is interesting, but the reason is simple: Duke’s administration and board chairman, Robert Steel, did everything in their power to have these three young men indicted and convicted in what surely would have been a crooked trial. The university’s role in the false accusations was vital, and especially Steel’s role in having the Duke University police (which first investigated the allegations) change their reports to make the players look guilty.
Duke University Medical Center also played an important role, as it permitted a not-yet-certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) to write what essentially was a fabrication of a rape exam. The medical center also played a role with many of its employees telling others in the community that Mangum definitely was raped and beaten.
According to Cohan, however, the settlement was about $60 million. He got that figure by extrapolating from a supposed nonpayment of taxes by Reade Seligmann of $6 million. (I wrote about the bogus IRS action in this article.) Cohan then did his math and figured that if Seligmann owed $6 million in taxes, then he must have received $20 million. (It turned out that the IRS was wrong – a big shock to LRC readers, I know.)
However, like so many of his other accusations in the book, Cohan just gets the numbers wrong. That he did should surprise no one, given the fact that his research is sloppy (he doesn’t even use endnotes and is loose with his sources) and the man started and finished with an agenda, and the agenda wasn’t about finding the truth.
I could say more, but perhaps it is best just to say that Cohan apparently did not like the outcome of the Duke Lacrosse Case, so he decided to write his own narrative in hopes that he could smear the people who had been unjustly accused and also rehabilitate Nifong and Mangum. This was a very tall order, given the public record and given the fact that Mangum and Nifong are proven liars, and in the end Cohan demonstrates that once again, most mainstream journalists are little more than political hacks that write propaganda for the Left.