Commentary Magazine

Anatomy of a Scandal


Until Proven Innocent:
Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case

by Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson
Thomas Dunne. 432 pp. $26.95

In the spring of 2006, a story about a top-tier college lacrosse team and its direct involvement in the alleged gang rape of a young black woman became a national sensation. The crime, supposedly, occurred in the midst of a raucous Saturday-night party in a house just across the street from the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The house was home to four members of the Duke lacrosse team. On the night in question, most of the team’s 46 players, all but one of whom were white, were in attendance, in part to watch the woman participate in a strip tease. It was said that as many as 20 players had participated in the rape.

Reporters, columnists, and talking heads spun grand theories about the sociological meaning of the Duke incident. It was universally portrayed as sending a message about class (the psychopathic arrogance bred by privilege and affluence), sex (the enduring legacy of sexual violence in the American South), and race (the continuing oppression of African-Americans by the white power elite). This analysis seemed to be confirmed when three of the students were indicted on rape charges by the district attorney of Durham County.

Yet, well before the indictments were handed down, it was clear that no crimes had been committed. The three young men had airtight alibis. The district attorney who was pressing the charges knew there was DNA evidence exculpating all the lacrosse players under suspicion. The stripper who claimed to have been raped was mentally ill, had a criminal record, kept changing her story, and never coherently identified any of the alleged rapists.

How, then, did the accusations gain so much traction? And why did it take more than a year for the case to collapse and for the three young men to have their names cleared? In Until Proven Innocent, Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson seek to answer these questions. Taylor is a distinguished journalist whose reporting has focused on legal issues. Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College who became consumed with the case and channeled his outrage about what he saw as a grotesque miscarriage of justice into a masterful investigative blog called “Durham in Wonderland.”



Taylor and Johnson introduce the reader to three interlocking sources of error. First was the district attorney, Mike Nifong; second, the administration of Duke; and third, the press.

Nifong, who in early 2006 was finishing his first term in office and running for a second, had especially perverse incentives to distort the facts. The case emerged in the weeks before the Democratic primary, in which Nifong was locked in a three-man race. One of his rivals, seemingly a sure winner of the white vote, had been hugely successful in raising money from the business and education communities. The other was a black man who had never prosecuted a case but enjoyed the backing of the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and appeared poised to garner a majority of the black vote.

And so Nifong seemed a certain loser. But then came the Duke lacrosse party. The Raleigh News & Observer (Raleigh is Durham’s larger and more affluent twin city) ran a long, wildly inaccurate, and impossible-to-ignore article depicting a gang rape accompanied by racial slurs. Within two weeks the story had gained national prominence, featured on front pages and aired nightly on the TV news. Both CBS and ABC reported the judgment of a police officer that “a brutal rape . . . occurred within that house.” The lacrosse team, it was repeatedly asserted, had compiled a long record of bad behavior. “Team’s Troubles Shock Few at Duke” was the New York Times headline.

On this particular matter, Taylor and Johnson demonstrate persuasively that the personal conduct of team members fell well within the normal range for Duke’s student community. But the lurid charges electrified Durham’s black community, and Nifong guessed that the case had suddenly put the black vote back in play. He hit upon a winning formula, one that would require him to become an ardent advocate of the stripper’s accusations and to make sure that every voter knew where he stood.

In late March, declaring that he would personally take charge of the case—because it “talks about what this community stands for”—Nifong unleashed a media blitz. Over the span of a single week, he gave at least 70 media interviews and press conferences. It worked: on primary day, he polled landslide victories in Durham’s black precincts and did equally well in the few precincts dominated by the far-Left People’s Alliance. And he won the Democratic nomination for district attorney.



But Nifong was not the only party in Durham to decide that presuming the guilt of the lacrosse players was a smart move. Duke University, which might have been expected to support its accused students or at the very least to reserve judgment, instead aligned itself from the beginning with the prosecution. Ten days after the party, President Richard Brodhead issued a ringing statement that began: “Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke.” His words were endlessly and gleefully quoted by the players’ adversaries.

In determining how to position itself, the Duke administration appears to have had some perverse incentives of its own. According to Taylor and Johnson, the “town-gown” relationship in Durham is unusually tricky. The city is poor and 44-percent black, and Duke is by far the largest local employer, with about 15,000 residents in its labor force. Any work stoppage in black Durham could shut down the university, and anything resembling a race riot could scare away student applicants for years.

Duke’s president was responding to internal pressures as well. In a chapter titled “Academic McCarthyism,” we learn that since the mid-1990’s, Duke has been making a major effort to bring its 500-member arts-and-sciences faculty into conformity with the latest thinking on racial and ethnic diversity and to shed the image of the university as a bastion of “wealth, whiteness, and privilege.” This effort has been successful. Today’s Duke is, instead, a bastion of radical politics and political correctness.

Thus, over several months in which abundant reasons presented themselves to suspect the district attorney of railroading the lacrosse players, not a single member of the arts-and-sciences faculty spoke up in support of their rights. When, finally, a lone chemistry professor publicly cautioned against a rush to judgment, he was instantly pilloried as a racist in the Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper.



Unlike the district attorney and the Duke administration, the mainstream American media had no obvious motive to distort reality when the rape charges surfaced. And yet the media did, in effect, vote almost unanimously for a guilty verdict, if for no other reason than that the power of a racially charged accusation seemed to demand it.

One seeming problem for reporters personally committed to the “guilty” scenario was the inability of the prosecution to come up with witnesses. There had, after all, been upward of 40 lacrosse players in the house that night. One has to assume that at least a few of them would have been so horrified by the alleged rape as to feel obliged to step forward and corroborate the accusations. But nothing of the sort happened. Every one of the lacrosse players kept doggedly insisting that there had been no rape.

One might also think that so striking a consensus would have caused at least a few reporters to wonder whether the players might be telling the truth. Again, nothing of the sort happened. News stories explained the absence of corroborating witnesses in psychological terms, leaning hard on the proposition that intercollegiate sports produces a very special bond with one’s teammates, precluding any appearance of disloyalty.

This, for example, was the theme of a long article in Time entitled “Fraternity of Silence,” and of a New York Times story called “When Peer Pressure, Not a Conscience, Is Your Guide.” Exploring the “locker-room culture” that supposedly prevents players from listening to their conscience, the Times reporter, Selena Roberts, went on to characterize the Duke team as “a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.”



A year later, it is Mike Nifong who has lost his “fine pedigree,” having been forced to resign his office in disgrace and being disbarred for professional misconduct. As for Nifong’s cynical attempt to frame three innocent men in order to save his political hide, it similarly calls into question his own “social standing” as a “human being.”

But what of the other actors—the administration of Duke University and the media that swallowed Nifong’s story whole? They have suffered a little embarrassment, but nothing else—certainly not enough to provide a cautionary example to other university administrators and talking heads the next time there is a racially charged incident of dubious provenance. Until Proven Innocent, a reportorial tour de force, may be the only thing of lasting value to emerge from this dreadful spectacle.

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