Mimesis Law
7 December 2019

10 Years Later: Lessons Lost From The Duke Lacrosse Case

Mar. 18, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Nearly a decade ago, the country was obsessed with lurid allegations of rape against the Duke University varsity lacrosse team. The Duke lacrosse case became synonymous with privilege, racism, and the power of college athletics. But by its end, it would become synonymous with things far darker and much uglier: prosecutorial misconduct, the irresponsible power of the press, and the effects of a false rape allegation.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series aired “Fantastic Lies” last Sunday night. The show revisited this controversial case on the tenth anniversary of the party that led to the allegations. It’s a fascinating story. While the North Carolina Attorney General eventually declared the players innocent, it’s hard to say the story had a happy ending. More importantly, it doesn’t seem like much was learned from the case about the danger of judging people without knowing any of the facts.

A few months after losing in the 2005 NCAA championship game, the Duke lacrosse team threw a party. Somebody hired strippers for the party and it went downhill quickly. Crystal Mangum, one of the strippers, called 911. She told the 911 operator it wasn’t an emergency, but she was angry. After she claimed rape, the case blew up. Apparently the wild party was described as something more sinister; a violent mob scene that culminated in a violent sexual assault on Mangum.

Three players were eventually indicted for the rape. Picked up by national media, the players were convicted in the press long before a shred of evidence was known about the case. Dr. Houston Baker, at the time a Duke English professor, declared the players “bad citizens.” Protests broke out on campus. Jesse Jackson framed it as a matter of “privileged versus poor.” Commenters in the documentary claimed Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong must have had a pretty strong case based on his comments to the press.

As the story (but not evidence) grew, Duke elected to cancel the rest of the team’s lacrosse season. This was a particularly devastating decision, as the team was making a run at the national championship. “Fantastic Lies” describes the administration forfeiting the season over the “grave questions” surrounding the lacrosse team’s conduct. Duke University, in particular, was quick to condemn the players long before there was even a hint of the answers to those grave questions.

Both Nifong and those Duke professors would turn out to be very wrong.

A number of Duke professors took out an ad in the student newspaper condemning the lacrosse team. After rushing to judgment, they then refused to apologize, claiming they were simply trying to start a discussion about larger issues on campus. It’s become an easy excuse for lies. The claim of trying to draw attention to an issue excuses the throwing around of false accusations.

The players hired lawyers and prepared for the siege of a high-profile criminal defense case. But as those lawyers started working the case, it began to unravel. It was immediately apparent the three charged players had solid alibis. Based on a timeline created from electronic evidence and cell phone records, including Mangum’s, the lawyers were able to show the three men could not have committed the assault the way it was described.

DA Nifong literally wouldn’t hear of it. The defense attorneys describe him covering his ears and refusing to listen. The case eventually fell apart during a hearing when a DNA expert testified he and Nifong had agreed to withhold exculpatory test results.

In a rare move, the North Carolina Attorney General didn’t just dismiss the charges, he declared the players innocent. In an even rarer move, Nifong was actually punished for his role in the case. Not only was he disbarred, he spent a day in jail. “Fantastic Lies” reveals much more about his actions. The scene from his disciplinary hearing shows the hearing panel listening in disbelief as he tries to explain his motivation.

The documentary does a good job of conveying the tension and pain the case created. As Cathy Young, a Reason contributor, points out, some reviewers have taken the curious position that “Fantastic Lies” was too sympathetic to the falsely accused men. This is such a mindless position it deserves little, if any discussion. What does merit discussion is whether such a high-profile rush to judgment has taught us anything.

It hasn’t. In particular, campus sex crimes have given both victims and the authorities, legal or university, a pass on false accusations. On a smaller scale, the Duke lacrosse case is repeated over and over again on college campuses. Those cases don’t get the firestorm of media attention that the Duke defendants endured, but the accusations are no less false.

Accusations are nothing more than that…accusations. People are quick to condemn the accused based more on the charged crime than any particular fact that might support it. Sexual assault is bad. And campus sexual assault is terrible. But it has become acceptable to take the position the accused should get no rights, much less all the rights associated with a criminal prosecution. There is actually support for the idea we should always believe rape allegations, no matter what, presuming guilt and shifting the burden of proof to the accused.

Colorado Representative Jared Polis was greeted with applause last year after commenting that there should be no due process in the university disciplinary process when it comes to sexual assault:

If there are 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people. We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty, we’re talking about them being transferred to another university, for crying out loud.

It’s sexual assault. That’s really bad. Let’s go ahead and get rid of them. Don’t worry about due process. Watch the Duke documentary. The idea these allegations have no real effect is as outrageous as it is stupid. And don’t forget, the accusations are ultimately accusations of criminal activity. How long before the same attitude invades our courtrooms?

That seems far-fetched, until you realize this is exactly what happens when the police decide ahead of time they have the right guy. All that manufactured evidence, all those lies, all those manipulated witnesses, point towards the result some regular guy (or girl) with a badge and an exaggerated sense of righteousness wants to see.

So why haven’t we slowed down the rush to judgment? Because that takes thought. And right now there is a real shortage of that. In the decade since the most high profile example of a false rape allegation, not much has changed.          

3 Comments on this post.

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  • jdgalt
    19 March 2016 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    The rush to judgment hasn’t stopped because the Dept. of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter requires universities to continue it, on pain of losing all federal funds. And nobody with standing has yet sued the DoE for causing this ongoing, Reign of Terror-like violation of accused students’ civil rights.

    Fortunately, victims are beginning to win six- and seven-figure lawsuits against the universities that operate these kangaroo courts. When the rush to judgment starts costing the schools more money than the Feds pay them, then just maybe it will stop.

  • Chris F
    23 March 2016 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    It still baffles me that people think a just repercussion for a college student that rapes someone is to transfer to another school. And the fact that this is being viewed not just as acceptable but as a tough on crime stance is insane. Get the cops involved, give the accused their day in court, and if they did it don’t just make them someone else’s problem.

  • Viral Video Shows Durham Police Bringing The Heat Over Some Weed
    22 April 2016 at 7:20 am - Reply

    […] The Durham Police Department’s High Enforcement Abatement Team was at the center of the events that led to the viral video. You may remember the Durham Police Department from such shining law enforcement moments as the Duke Lacrosse case, where the Police Department, along with the district attorney, utterly embarrassed an entire nation. […]