Fantastic Lies and Aversion to the Truth: The Duke Lacrosse Case 10 Years After

When I first saw the accusations against Duke University lacrosse players a decade ago, my first reaction was the reaction of most people who read about the story: horror and disgust. “Was there any limit to how far drunken college athletes will take awful behavior?” I wondered. As a former collegiate athlete myself at a high-powered Division-I program in the early 1970s, I was well-aware that male athletes and alcohol often made a combustible mix that could easily run someone off the rails into activities that clearly broke the law.

According to the accusations, which in a short time moved with the speed of a prairie fire, the lacrosse players had beaten and raped a black stripper/prostitute at a March 13 team party held over spring break. The charges were explosive and simply too good to be true – so no one should be surprised that the Usual Suspects from the Left jumped all over them.

Within a couple of weeks, however, my disgust at the alleged actions turned to that uneasy feeling inside when I realized that the entire story was suspect, really suspect. Even before Durham County, North Carolina, District Attorney Michael Nifong – who would become front-and-center in this sorry tale – announced indictments against three of the players, I wrote this piece that all-but-said the story was, well, a story.

The Duke Lacrosse Case dominated the U.S. news cycle for a year. As the producer of the ESPN Documentary recently said during an interview on National Public Radio, the case offered something for everyone. For people like me who have carried on the battle against prosecutorial misconduct for more than a decade, it was a tale of the worst kind of legal abuse by a prosecutor, and while he was disbarred, he deserved to be charged with crimes, both state and federal, and should be in a prison cell instead of enjoying the comforts of his home.

For blacks, it offered the opportunity to demand “justice” for all of the abuse they have suffered. As the North Carolina Central University student body vice-president told Newsweek, the three needed to be convicted even if they were innocent because of what black Americans have gone through. (He really said that.) It gave the NAACP to pose as a “law-and-order” organization and depart from its well-publicized stances on gag orders and due process of law. Here we had the NAACP filing in court for a gag order (and receiving it from a compliant judge) and it called for the trial to be held in Durham where jurors would be more likely to ignore evidence and automatically convict the defendants.

For feminists, it was the verification of what they now call “rape culture,” and it gave feminist bloggers the opportunity to make themselves famous by outdoing each other to see who could make the most outrageous and vulgar statements. For members of the Duke University faculty – especially those teaching in the truly awful “Identity Studies” majors – and their student activist allies, it provided the opportunity for them to seize the “moral high ground” and to make demands (mostly met) of the Duke administration – and to be interviewed on the national news.

For journalists, it was the chance of a lifetime to practice the kind of advocacy that they learned in their left-wing journalism studies, all while keeping the façade of Really Serious People. From the New York Times to Newsweek to CNN and beyond, journalists assumed guilt and wrote their stories with the “imagery” that so easily accompanied this case. Yes, it was a throwback to the days of slavery when the evil southern master raped his black female slaves. (The only problem was that none of the defendants were from the South, and none of them lived on anything that remotely resembled a plantation, but facts didn’t matter. Only the narrative was important, and journalists milked it for all they could.)

As Evan Thomas of Newsweek would say after the case disappeared, “The narrative was correct, but the facts were wrong.” Thus, a “respected” American journalist was saying, “White lacrosse players regularly rape black females, but in this situation, they didn’t do it, but it was fine that we assumed they did it.” No, white lacrosse players do not regularly rape black females, but it really doesn’t matter because the narrative says they do.

Talking heads on cable TV truly were the worst. From Nasty Nancy Grace to a gaggle of prosecutors, lawyers, and analysts, the message was the same: these players are guilty because the prosecutor says they are guilty, and because they were indicted. And, everyone knows that the narrative (“White lacrosse players regularly rape black females”) just has to be true because members of the Duke faculty and others are saying it.

It was the Bonfire of the Vanities (or maybe the Bonfire of the Inanities) and this was even before social media in all its brutal ugliness had taken hold. One only can imagine the kinds of hateful tweets and posts that would have filled cyberspace, written by those who are perpetually ignorant and repeated by journalists because they don’t know what else to do.

Then there was the Duke University administration, led by Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead (who still pollutes the campus with his presence), which launched both into an orgy of self-pity (Look how bad these bestial lacrosse players have made us look!) and self-righteousness. Since the alleged rape took place in a house owned by Duke University, the university looked to have the accuser, Crystal Mangum, sue the university into near-oblivion, so the administration decided to make the best of it and go along with the crowd.

It also provided the opportunity for leftists like Brodhead and some radical administrators and faculty members to remake Duke into a symbol of Political Correctness that even Oberlin College and Brandeis University would envy, and Brodhead and his lieutenants seized the day. The one thing that Brodhead refused to do was to look at the evidence, even when attorneys for the accused athletes offered to share their files with him. Brodhead was the captain of the ship and he was not even going to wait until it hit an iceberg before he would deliberately scuttle it.

The Fraudulent Charges

So, what was it that everyone was supposed to believe? As I wrote in my original article on the case, the one thing that apparently no one wanted to see was the “stinkin’ evidence,” which clearly contradicted the whole case.

We were supposed to believe the following:

  • During a drunken party on March 13, 2006, held at the house where the lacrosse captains lived, the players began to threaten the two black strippers/prostitutes hired to “perform” perverted sexual acts.
  • The women, fearing for their lives as the players were “barking racial slurs” (according to the Raleigh News & Observer, which launched the entire madness with stories that were outright fiction) and physically assaulting them, ran into the bathroom.
  • While there, the players removed one of the women (Kim Roberts) and then turned on Crystal Mangum, with Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans taking turns beating her with their fists for 30 minutes and raping her virginally, anally, and orally, ejaculating in her mouth, inside her body, and on her torso.
  • Mangum finally was able to escape this vicious assault and ultimately ended up in the Duke University Medical Center emergency room, where a rape examination confirmed her claims.

That was what Nifong openly claimed, what Mangum claimed, and what was repeated ad nauseum in the media. However, this truly was an empirical claim. If these things happened the way Mangum and Nifong were claiming, then there would be clear evidence from DNA testing to fingerprints (in the bathroom), to bruising on Mangum’s face (where the players allegedly punched her) and to bruising in the vaginal and anal areas. After all, drunken athletes who are beating and raping a woman are not going to take many precautions, given the utter recklessness of their alleged actions.

Nifong himself declared before getting a friendly judge to order that all of the lacrosse players be DNA tested (oral swabs) that DNA would show who was guilty – and who was not. It was to be an easy thing: match the DNA samples taken from Mangum’s body and from the bathroom and match them with the DNA from the players in a process of elimination.

At that point, however, the entire case collapsed, although the North Carolina legal system would not acknowledge that plain, in-your-face fact for another year. There are numerous people who even today will not acknowledge what became obvious – because the facts don’t fit their narratives and in today’s politicized culture, narratives always come first.

The search of the bathroom found nothing, no fingerprints, no DNA that would be found where Mangum’s account would have it, and nothing that could be used in a criminal trial without being thoroughly destroyed even by a semi-competent defense. No, the players had not wiped down the floor, nor had they used bleach to remove anything, or even remove the trash can that was stuffed with the usual things one would expect in the house of three athletes throwing an all-male party.

Guilty people don’t act this way. They hide evidence. When a number of black assailants torture-murdered a white couple in Knoxville in 2007, they were high on drugs but still had the presence of mind to put bleach into the mouth of the female (who was forced to perform oral sex on her killers) and use it elsewhere on her body. The supposedly-smart lacrosse players did nothing of the sort, and if what Mangum alleged had been true, then the bathroom would have been full of evidence that anyone with an IQ of a lizard would have eliminated. But, no, the trash can was full, and floor and walls had not been cleaned, and the room pretty much was what it was when the police came to investigate.

Then came the huge revelation: no DNA of the lacrosse players was found anywhere on Mangum’s body. There was no telltale smell of bleach or other chemicals one might use to remove DNA. Nothing. Investigators took swabs and more swabs but found nothing, not a single cell of DNA material from any of the lacrosse players was found where drunken rapists would have left it. Nifong himself had declared that DNA would identify who was innocent – and who was guilty.

Nifong’s Craven Behavior

In a normal investigation, this would be case closed on steroids. There would be no way an attack this brutal could not leave at least some kind of evidence, yet there was none.

At that point, Nifong acted in a way that was so reckless and so dishonest that one even today wonders why he is not behind bars. On the day North Carolina crime lab investigators told Nifong there was absolutely no DNA evidence on which to hang a rape and sexual assault case, Nifong decided to take his case to the media. (Shortly before he began his media barrage, Nifong admitted to Durham police officer Ben Himan, “We’re fucked.” At that point, Nifong decided that lying was a good offense.)

Within a few weeks, he had given about 70 interviews to local media and to national media, declaring that there was no uncertainty in this case. There was a rape, and he had a “mountain of evidence” to prove it. All that was left was to officially identify the three defendants, and the case most likely would be wrapped up with a plea bargain.

In retrospect, what he did was breathtaking. Other prosecutors, while standing by their man, realized that he was shredding the ethical requirements that allegedly bind prosecutors, both state and federal (not that judicial authorities actually care about these requirements). Yet, there truly was method to Nifong’s madness, to use a trite phrase. He was ensuring that the case would stay alive no matter where the facts might lead in the future and even if there was no credible evidence of rape, nonetheless the accuser was black, the accused white, and a Durham jury would be made up of people who would almost surely vote for a conviction no matter what. After all, people have gone to jail on even less evidence than Nifong possessed.

His explanations as to why there was no DNA evidence did not make sense, but they caught on, anyway, and were repeated not only by activists, but by “distinguished” journalists from the New York Times and Newsweek. The claims included:

  • The men must have used condoms
  • They removed DNA by use of chemicals
  • They wiped the bathroom clean
  • They wore long-sleeved shirts and pants
  • Mangum was confused and the assault only lasted five minutes
  • Maybe the players didn’t ejaculate
  • The players were hiding evidence
  • The attorneys were hiding evidence

To someone who might look at criminal cases with at least something of a clinical view, the claims were and are nonsense. A student from NCCU declared, “This doesn’t mean they didn’ t do it; it means they left nothing behind,” and Nifong used that same quote when addressing people at NCCU during an anti-lacrosse rally held shortly after the allegations appeared. Yet, “leaving something behind” takes planning and also leaves its own evidence, but nothing like that could be found despite all-out efforts by the police and prosecution to find something, anything on which to buttress the case.

That Nifong pushed the case forward even when the evidence screamed against it is testament not only to his dishonesty, but also the dishonesty of the activists who supposedly were “seeking justice.” But Nifong did not push forward because he believed in the case, but rather for another reason.

Nifong, who clearly falls into the category of a sociopath, was running for election in the Democratic Party primary, and before the lacrosse case came into being, he was behind and was going to lose his job. Furthermore, he had lent $30,000 of his own money to his listless, faltering campaign, and unless he was able to create a deus ex machina moment, he was looking at the unemployment line and would be $30K in the hole. (No journalist found out about the $30,000 loan; instead, college professor KC Johnson, whose blog Durham-in-Wonderland tore huge holes in Nifong’s case and strongly contributed to the final exoneration of the accused lacrosse players discovered that key financial evidence.)

The original accusation already had galvanized the blacks of Durham County (and blacks make up 40 percent of overall voters and are a majority of Democrat voters), and the white liberals and radical leftist Duke faculty members and like-minded students quickly joined protesting blacks. Had Nifong admitted at that point he had no evidence to bring charges against anyone, these groups would have turned on him and there is no way he could have won the primary – and he only won with a few hundred votes to spare.

Yes, Nifong stood to gain. He would get his $30,000 back (through dunning lawyers at the courthouse) and receive an extra $15,000 a year for his pension, and he planned to retire after his four-year term expired. As the ESPN producer said, there was something for everyone, including Michael Nifong, who was going to financially benefit from what he believed to be protected conduct.

In most situations, ordinary defendants could not have stood up against such a legal onslaught. First, few people have the spare change to defend themselves from criminal charges, especially cases like sexual assault in which $100,000 is the absolute minimum that it costs to receive even decent legal representation, and in cases involving charges of sex crimes, often a million dollars will fall short of what is needed for an effective defense. Second, an inflamed populace translates into an inflamed jury, and given that Durham’s judges also were craven, Nifong almost surely would have had a slam-dunk conviction, as the residents of Durham in 2006 were no more willing to consider the case to be a fraud than were the inflamed mobs of Scottsboro, Alabama, in the infamous Scottsboro Boys case.

Anticipating that perhaps these defendants had the means to defend themselves, Nifong told the media that if the lacrosse players were not guilty, then they really didn’t need lawyers in the first place, and that the accused were rich white boys trying to buy justice. His words played well with self-righteous columnists and media figures, along with Durham’s black community, but the North Carolina State Bar did not take so kindly to Nifong’s outrageous public statements, and it ultimately was that entity that would do something that never had happened before in any criminal proceeding: it filed breach of conduct trials against Nifong while the case still was active. In the past, the very few times any state bar of any state had accused prosecutors of misconduct was after a trial was completed.

The state bar committee’s decision to charge Nifong came via a one-vote majority. Had that one committee member decided to go the other way, Nifong had clear sailing all the way to trial even though his lies were thoroughly exposed at a pre-trial hearing just 10 days before Christmas of 2006. Ironically, it was Nifong’s decision to further pursue DNA evidence that ultimately caused his case to collapse and send him on the road to perdition, disbarment, and disgrace.

Not satisfied with the state crime lab’s findings, in the spring of 2006, Nifong sent the rape kit and some of Mangum’s false fingernails that were found in the bathroom trash can at the “lacrosse house to a private laboratory headed by a talkative social misfit named Brian Meehan. (Meehan had begged Nifong to let him examine the material and even offered the prosecutor a steep discount because this supposedly would provide good publicity for the lab.)

Meehan’s examination found DNA from a number of other men in the places where one would expect a prostitute to have male DNA, but nothing from the lacrosse players. However, he was able to find a “DNA mix” from David Evans and at least 13 other lacrosse players on the false fingernail. This hardly was the “Hail Mary” and “slam dunk” that talking heads such as Nancy Grace were claiming (Grace and her dishonest sidekick Wendy Murphy claimed that Evans’ “flesh” was found under one of Mangum’s fingernails, something that patently was untrue.)

To put this DNA mix into perspective, when Meehan was examining the material Nifong sent him, he wore protective gear to keep him from contaminating the sample. However, some of Meehan’s DNA did manage to find its way into Mangum’s rape kit, and Meehan’s DNA profile was substantially stronger than the profile of David Evans on the fingernail.

While Nifong publicized the Evans DNA mixture, he also failed to inform the attorneys of the other findings, instead dumping the raw data into a box and sending it to the defense in mid-October of 2006, knowing that none of them knew how to read sheets depicting DNA markers, which meant he could effectively hide the exculpatory material – and the lack of DNA of any lacrosse player on Mangum’s body screamed out innocence – and keep the media and the defense from raising even more doubts about the charges.

The December 15 hearing changed everything, and it changed because one of the defense attorneys, Brad Bannon, a junior partner in the law firm headed by Joseph Cheshire, took it upon himself to learn how to interpret DNA reports. Bannon locked himself in the law firm’s conference room, read books on DNA, and slowly went through more than a thousand pages containing the raw data that Nifong and Meehan were trying to hide in plain sight. It was Bannon who discovered that male DNA was in and on Mangum’s body and orifices, and it was Bannon who found out that Meehan’s own profile had contaminated the DNA evidence.

At the hearing, which was called to discuss the use of some of the evidence, the defense was able to put Meehan on the stand, and Bannon then questioned him about the findings. That was bad enough, but then Nifong’s near-death experience came next: under questioning from Bannon and James Cooney, Reade Seligmann’s attorney, Meehan admitted that he and Nifong had agreed not to disclose all of the evidence to the defense, which was a serious breach of the Brady requirements given by the U.S. Supreme Court that prosecutors provide all exculpatory evidence to the accused and the accused’s counsel. Nifong had not done that, and for that breach of conduct, there would be no mercy.

Within a few weeks, the North Carolina State Bar unanimously agreed to charge the prosecutor with more ethical violations and it was clear that disbarment was a real possibility. Nifong begged off the case, and handed it over to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who had two staff prosecutors do their own investigation. Less than four months after the infamous hearing, and with the once-sycophantic news media now turning against him, Cooper dropped the charges and declared the players to be innocent. Two months after that, Nifong was told to surrender his law license, and he was removed from his job – and lost that extra $15K a year in his pension.

The Aftermath

In one sense, the Duke Lacrosse Case had a satisfactory ending. A massive wrong was righted and three young men were vindicated. A prosecutor was punished, and supposedly the media had learned its lesson on rushing to judgment. If only.

To be honest, almost nothing changed. In fact, Nifong’s disbarment provided an insurance policy for other unethical prosecutors, as one could point to what happened and declare, “You see? Unethical prosecutors are being punished, and since I’m not being punished, that must mean I did nothing wrong,” or something to that effect. Of course, there also was the requisite charge from feminist groups that by dismissing the charges, Cooper was “making it even more difficult for women who have been sexually assaulted to come forward.”

Not surprisingly, the fact that three Duke University lacrosse players were falsely charged, and the State of North Carolina officially recognized that fact has not discouraged rape and sexual assault investigations and criminal cases elsewhere. Women still “come forward,” and men still have been found guilty, and some of them wrongfully convicted, with their exonerations being won through painstaking efforts by lawyers associated with the Innocence Project.

As for the other villains in this sorry story, I’m sad to report that none have been punished. Duke President Richard Brodhead was much more active behind the scenes than people realized, but his actions were aimed at trying to bolster Nifong’s case. Brodhead only gave up on that strategy when it became obvious in late 2006 that the charges were false.

Brodhead’s main lieutenant, John Burness, the corpulent “public affairs” director at Duke, actively tried to undermine the players throughout the case, telling members of the media in off-the-record sessions that the players definitely were guilty, and that they were bad characters. Burness left Duke soon after the charges were dropped and became the interim president of his alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, before becoming a highly-paid lobbyist for higher education.

Other than Mike Pressler, the highly-regarded Duke lacrosse coach who would not abandon his players and subsequently was fired after Duke’s athletic director, Joe Alleva (now at LSU) told him that the case was “not about the truth,” no one at Duke lost his or her job. In hindsight, it seems that the more dishonest and more cravenly the Duke administrator and faculty member acted during 2006 and 2007, the more that person was rewarded with promotions and accolades.

The Obama administration also seems to have been unhappy with the outcome, and four years after the lacrosse charges were dismissed, President Barack Obama’s Department of Education sent a letter to all colleges and universities demanding that more males accused of sexual assault be disciplined or expelled. In order to accomplish that illiberal goal, the Obama administration forced institutions of higher education to use flimsy standards to determine guilt and to employ “investigation” procedures and biased hearings to ensure that the accused would not receive anything resembling due process.

Had the Obama standards been in place in 2006, most of the lacrosse players would have been dismissed summarily from Duke despite the lack of evidence, and even when the criminal charges were dismissed, Duke almost surely would have upheld the dismissals. (This has happened elsewhere in the USA, as the Obama administration has made it utterly clear that innocence is no defense against accusations of sexual misconduct.)

In a just system, Michael Nifong still would be in prison, where he could join Mangum, who is serving time for second-degree murder. Richard Brodhead might be an administrator at a junior college, and John Burness would be on the unemployment line.

As further proof that neither the media nor officials of higher education have learned anything, look at what happened last year at the University of Virginia when Rolling Stone published an obviously-false story about a the non-existent rape of a female student there. Students, faculty, administrators, and, of course, the news media exploded in their usual outrage and, to channel the late Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.

The French aristocrat and ambassador Talleyrand allegedly remarked of France’s Bourbon Dynasty, “They have learned nothing and forgot nothing.” And so it is with American higher education, the political classes, and the media. Every accusation of sexual misconduct on a college campus provides people with opportunities to express outrage, and for yet another Bonfire of the Vanities to be lit.

That some people just may be innocent of what they are charged really doesn’t matter, for if there is a narrative, then the facts really don’t matter. So 10 years later, prosecutors still lie, people are falsely charged, college campuses explode over falsehoods, and then the whole system repeats itself.

So, let us remember the Duke Lacrosse Case. And let us remember that if there were any lessons to be learned, that the people who most should have learned them already have forgotten what it was they supposedly learned. And so it goes.