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Hefty price for justice

Duke players declared innocent, but case hurt many

Posted: Thursday April 12, 2007 12:01AM; Updated: Thursday April 12, 2007 11:29AM
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So what was the Duke lacrosse rape case anyway? A hoax? A failure to speak truth to power? A journalistic breakdown? Or was that year-long academic, civic, athletic and sociological trainwreck indeed what North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper branded a "tragic rush to accuse"? Take your pick: All kinds of labels got tossed around in the wake of Cooper's dismissal Wednesday of all charges against the accused players. And why not? For so long, the team and the events at that infamous March 13, 2006 party had been used as a vessel for so many different themes -- Racism! Power! Privilege! Sexism! -- that it's only fitting to find the endgame just as cluttered. But the fact is, with Cooper's extraordinary statement that Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans are not just "not guilty" but "innocent" of the charges of sexual assault and kidnapping, the need for such puffery dissolved. Everything in Durham got smaller. Nearly everything seemed clear.

In fact, suddenly the case that once seemed rife with loose ends had only one real mystery: What, for the last year, was going on inside the head of District Attorney Mike Nifong?

By comparison, the accuser's mindset -- a puzzle from the moment the exotic dancer/North Carolina Central University student said the three men trapped her in a bathroom and gang-raped her -- seems downright explicable. The woman's account shifted wildly from the start, yet she remained insistent that a crime occurred. For the first time, Wednesday, everyone seemed to agree why. Though Evans again spoke Wednesday of the "fantastic lies" told about the night of the party, none of the accused showed interest in seeking redress from the woman, and their camp has taken to calling her "troubled." Cooper said Wednesday that he considered bringing charges against the woman for making a false accusation, decided after repeated interviews that wouldn't be in the "best interest of justice", and broadly hinted that the woman was somehow mentally impaired.

"She may actually believe the many different stories she has been telling," he said. Pressed on the issue, Cooper stumbled over his words for the only time. "It just doesn't make sense," he said. "You can't piece it together."

For those of us who have followed this case, the confusion shown by the accuser always stood in stark contrast to the firmness of the accused. None of the 46 players wavered in their claims of innocence. Even over the Easter 2006 weekend, when three dozen team members knew that any one of them could be indicted, when they found themselves threatened with 30 years of jail time, when parents were pressuring them to tell the truth, not one player altered his assertion that no rape or attack occurred. In an explanation that was both simple and socially logical, player after player told me that the idea of Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann taking part in a gang-rape was absurd; before the case began, the three guys barely were friends, never hung out together. Suddenly, I was asked, they're going to trust each other forever with such a heinous act?

But, then, no one in the media had access, like Nifong or Cooper, to all the evidence -- or the lack thereof. On Wednesday Cooper declared that after a 12-week review of Nifong's case, his office had found "no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night." Then he repeated it, firmly: "No attack occurred."

He left no gray area. Indeed, Cooper's straightforward, decidedly non-lawyerly language on Wednesday sliced like a hot knife through 13 months of blather, and with each slashing syllable made the target of his wrath obvious. Cooper spoke of Nifong's "bravado" and "overreaching." He denounced him as "a rogue prosecutor." He called for a new law allowing the Supreme Court to remove a D.A. from a case in limited circumstances. Lawyer to lawyer, it doesn't get any more bare-knuckled. By the time Cooper was done, there was blood on the floor. He had all but destroyed Durham's sitting D.A.

It was a quick kill, the only answer for a case looking to be put out of its misery. When it began, of course, Nifong had public opinion on his side, and a media horde quick to link the lacrosse team's recent history of discipline problems with sexual assault. Nifong kicked off prosecution of the case last spring with dozens of interviews, called the Duke lacrosse players "hooligans" and stated he was sure a rape had occurred. He was facing a stiff fight in his first-ever campaign for reelection, but nothing in his long history as an attorney pointed to grandstanding. Longtime opponents and allies testified to his integrity. Because of that, "everybody thought, 'Well, there must be something there,'" said Duke law professor James Coleman on Wednesday. "They were willing to believe him."

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