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The Damage Done
S.L. Price
June 26, 2006
DUKE LACROSSE, the 46 white players, a black dancer and the reputation of the university are forever changed. But is the case solid? Was the coach made a scapegoat? Exclusive sources describe three months of fear, disbelief and confusion over what the future holds--in and out of court
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June 26, 2006

The Damage Done

DUKE LACROSSE, the 46 white players, a black dancer and the reputation of the university are forever changed. But is the case solid? Was the coach made a scapegoat? Exclusive sources describe three months of fear, disbelief and confusion over what the future holds--in and out of court

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Everybody lost. No matter what happens. �--DONNA LISKER, DIRECTOR, DUKE WOMEN'S CENTER

THE ACCUSED

Once it got serious, once the DNA samples came back negative and the district attorney made it obvious that he'd still proceed, Matt Zash could feel a finger beginning to point his way. Didn't it all add up? Zash was one of the three renters of the now-infamous house where the gang rape allegedly occurred. The three were all seniors, close friends, co-captains of the Duke lacrosse team. And his first name had been cited by the accuser, along with "Bret" and "Adam," as one used by her attackers. "Nobody knew who it was going to be," Zash says. "But basically the three people living in the house thought, Hell, it's going to be us."

Just before Easter weekend, word arrived that Durham D.A. Michael Nifong would be seeking indictments on April 17, the day after Easter. Zash went to see lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. "I think there's a good chance I'm going to get indicted," Zash told him. "I've come to grips with it. I'm going to try to stay as strong as I can."

Zash was hardly alone in his fear. Of the 46 team members who'd undergone DNA tests, Nifong had cleared just six. To the others, the D.A.'s winnowing of suspects seemed a mean game of chance: Pick a lacrosse player, any lacrosse player. Nifong had already publicly tarred the entire team as "hooligans" who had aided or abetted a monstrous act. A wanted poster featuring the team's head shots had gone up on campus, been flashed on TV.

"There I am, top right, every day when they show it," recalls defender Casey Carroll, who missed the team party to be with his girlfriend but wasn't yet one of the players cleared. "We all look the same, we're all generally tall, thin, white guys. I don't know how anybody would pick out someone [as a suspect]. I was nervous."

On the advice of lawyers, the team members have refused to discuss specifics of what took place that night, but all insist that the rape charge is a hoax, that every one of them is innocent. The March 13 party, of course, was anything but. The players' camp doesn't deny that team members spent $800 to hire a pair of exotic dancers (requesting a white and a Hispanic but getting two black women instead), that one player suggestively brandished a broomstick at the dancers, and that another thanked one dancer's "grandpa for my fine cotton shirt." One of the women says that more vile racial slurs were used that night, and the team's history of alcohol-fueled misbehavior made it easy for many to imagine the worst. The chillingly hateful statements in sophomore Ryan McFadyen's postparty e-mail alone will stain Duke athletics for years.

Those loathsome acts, however, don't prove gang rape. The court case may well resolve what happened, if anything, between the accuser (a single mother of two, a Navy veteran and a student at North Carolina Central University in Durham) and the three charged players (senior co-captain David Evans and sophomores Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty). But already the casualties are everywhere. The accuser's credibility has been attacked, the prosecutor's methods and evidence have been questioned. And "every one of the 46 lacrosse players, in some form or fashion, has been destroyed," says James (Butch) Williams, the Durham lawyer for Dan Flannery, the third co-captain. " Coach Pressler has been destroyed. Duke University has been destroyed. North Carolina Central has been torn up. Just there you've got hundreds hurt, and then the thousands of people here who've had to answer questions: 'Man, what in the heck is going on down there?' Talk about collateral damage."

On March 16 Evans, Flannery and Zash voluntarily went to police headquarters, made statements, submitted DNA samples and offered to take polygraphs. (The players were told that the DNA test would be a better proof of innocence, so the polygraph offer was declined.) But aside from the captains, most players didn't become aware of the seriousness of the charges until March 23, when Coach Pressler told them to change out of their practice clothes and head to a Durham police lab. Half the team went to police headquarters by mistake, cellphones buzzing and ringing, players calling home to tell startled parents for the first time about the party and the allegations. Following the advice of lawyers, the team members entered the lab with jackets over their faces to hide from a news photographer--only to be photographed inside by investigators, who pawed and stared at any scratch or bruise on their shirtless torsos.

"There's some scarring right here," said the woman scanning Carroll's side. She was looking at three 12-year-old marks from chicken pox. After opening wide for the DNA swab, Carroll and at least three other players heard the same refrain from an officer as they departed. "Don't worry, guys," he said. "This will all blow over."

It didn't. The five players named Bret, Adam or Matt found themselves subjects of an Internet-fueled flurry of speculation, their last names and addresses out for the world to see. A warning about drive-by revenge shootings on campus made the rounds. "I don't think any of us slept or ate much for a month," Zash says. He spent the next week living out of his car and staying on friends' couches before checking into a hotel. His parents came down two weeks later to lend support, but in a lawyer's office his mother, Nina, broke down sobbing, fighting for breath, unable to stand. "You feel like you're drowning, and you just want it to stop," she says. "But it wasn't stopping. It was getting worse and worse."

For the families the storm reached peak intensity over Easter, when players scattered to homes along the Washington-- New York corridor. Each day, to prepare, Nina Zash spoke the words out loud: Matthew's probably going to be arrested. She and her husband, Richard, would sit and watch each other's eyes fill with tears.

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