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Book Takes Closer Look at Duke Lacrosse Rape Case

November 1, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was a case with a potent mix of race, sexual violence, and class. The alleged rape of a black woman who had been hired as a stripper at a party by three white members of Duke University’s lacrosse team.

It garnered headlines across the country, stirred turmoil at one of the nation’s leading universities, and then fell apart completely. In the end, North Carolina’s attorney general announced that the three players — Reade Seligmann, Colin Finnerty, and David Evans — were innocent and called Mike Nifong, the local district attorney who brought the case, “a rogue prosecutor.”

A new book by Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson called “Until Proven Innocent” takes a hard look at what happened. Stuart Taylor, a longtime legal journalist and currently a columnist for the National Journal, joins me now.

Welcome to you.

STUART TAYLOR, Legal Journalist: Nice to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You suggest that the flaws in this case were apparent from the very beginning from the police investigation. Give us a good example.

STUART TAYLOR: The woman who ended up claiming she’d been raped didn’t say anything about it for 90 minutes. She first claimed she has been raped while she was being checked into a mental hospital for involuntary confinement. That was her ticket out.

As soon as she was out, she recanted the rape allegation and told Sergeant John Shelton, “No, I wasn’t raped.” And while he was calling that in, somebody says, “Well, she’s changed it again. During the course of the night, she said she had been raped by 20 men, five men, three men, four men, take your pick.”

And her story continued to be wild and crazy and inconsistent and implausible, self-contradictory and contradicted by all medical evidence from that point forward. None of the police at the hospital believed her.

Belief in the accuser's story

JEFFREY BROWN: But somebody believed her or what? How did it take off?

STUART TAYLOR: A hospital nurse believed her, who turns out to have been a woman who's in training to be a sexual assault nurse. She said, she later told defense lawyers, she had never disbelieved any rape complainant.

And then some bad cops, whether they believed her at first or not, decided that they were going to make a case out of this. And then a bad district attorney, the rogue District Attorney Mike Nifong, grabbed hold of it to try and win an election and, in the face of massive evidence of innocence, tried to put three innocent young men in jail for a long, long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: He's now been disbarred. He's been sued by the players. What do you conclude was his motivation? You said political. Does that mean...

STUART TAYLOR: I think it's quite clear. He was about to lose an election that he was desperate to win. A woman named Freda Black was running against him. It was a May 2nd primary in 2006. This case comes to him on March 24th of 2006. The primary's five weeks away or so.

It was his only opportunity to win the election, was to inflame the black vote by lying to the voters, and telling them that there had been a racially motivated rape, and inflaming the black vote. And he did it, and it worked, and he did it in the face of evidence that must have shown him long before the election, if not from the beginning, that this was all a big fraud.

The prosecutor's behavior

JEFFREY BROWN: You write that Nifong's persecution "may well be the most egregious abuse of prosecutorial power ever to unfold in plain view." How did he get away with it for so long?

STUART TAYLOR: Of course, a lot of the worst things he did were secret for a while, but one thing he did very overtly and publicly was proclaim these young men guilty from the moment he got involved in the case in a series of almost unprecedented media interviews, you know, inflammatory, false, "They're all guilty," "The ones who didn't do it are accomplices," "There's a wall of silence," "It was a racial thing," lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.

But even if they hadn't have been lies, even if it had been true, that's unethical for a prosecutor to do. Everyone should know that. The media ignored that, and instead of saying, "Why is this man violating the rules of ethics?" They said, "He must have the evidence," and went charging ahead, which at first was perhaps understandable. But after the evidence that it was a fraud came pouring into the public record, many in the media barely slowed down.

JEFFREY BROWN: You look at the media a lot here as one of the institutions that you look at over the course of the year here. And generally you think that it did not perform very well. Why?

STUART TAYLOR: I think they didn't perform well because many of them joined the rush to judgment. The New York Times...

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I mean, what do you think would have made them?

STUART TAYLOR: Their motivation?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

STUART TAYLOR: I think it was two things working in synch, old-fashioned media sensationalism -- everybody knows what that was, as this is a sensational story -- working together with political correctness, as I call it. You could call it something else.

Bias in favor of the idea that, well, the privileged white male athletes are accused of abusing the poor black woman, we love that. It's in synch with all of our preconceptions and our ideology. Let's pile on and make it a morality play. And an awful lot of people, including the New York Times, for example, were not a bit deterred by contrary evidence from making it a morality play of that kind.

Bias from the media

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it's one thing to say that they got the story wrong or they over-sensationalized. That happens a lot in our media. It's another thing to say that it's ideological. What's the evidence for that?

STUART TAYLOR: The evidence is, first, the fact that they ignored the evidence so completely. Second, the way they wrote it. Selena Roberts is a sports columnist in the New York Times, not a reporter, but a columnist. Her columns seethed with class hatred.

I think the first one was headlined "Bonded in Barbarity." And it was full of "the privileged this, the white that." They wore that pretty much on their sleeves more in the columns than in the reporting. In the reporting, it was more a matter of going directly in the teeth of the evidence over and over and over again in almost every story they wrote for many, many months.

And then the question is, well, why would they do that? That's the question you asked me, and I think that's why.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, you point out that this brought out the best in some people. You cite a number of other cases.

STUART TAYLOR: Yes. Yes, in fact, the late, great Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes," among others, did wonderful work on this, came in on the late side, but wonderful work.

Early on, two New York Times columnists, since I've been criticizing the New York Times, I should mention David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof both did distinguished work cutting against the biases of their paper generally. Dan Abrams of MSNBC did good work. There were others, reporters from the Raleigh News and Observer, Joe Neff.

There were a lot of people who did good work, but at the beginning, it was a chorus of condemnation and rush to judgment, with very few exceptions.

Role of Duke's president

JEFFREY BROWN: The president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, recently apologized for not standing by the students and the families as much as he thought he and the university should have.

STUART TAYLOR: He did apologize. I'm not sure that's how I'd characterize his apology. If you go parse it, I think he apologized that he didn't privately show them more support.

I don't believe he apologized for not publicly showing them more support. And I'm quite sure he did not apologize for smearing them with misleading, defamatory statements over and over again in his own voice in public.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned political correctness. Now, a number of reviewers have read the book and seen how you've carefully built the case in the Duke instance, but noted that you've tried to extrapolate that into a much larger case against academia, the media, the culture at large being too politically correct. Why take that one case and make something much bigger out of it?

STUART TAYLOR: Well, I know that criticism. I respect that criticism. And I respectfully disagree with it in this sense.

One of the most important reasons I wrote this book is that I think what happened to Duke says a lot, not only about what the Duke faculty and administration are like, but what the state of the American university is today. We generalize admittedly from that. And along chapter 25, readers of the book will judge for themselves whether we've made our case.

I might note that others -- and not all of them conservatives, including some liberals -- have made very similar cases in some excellent books over the years. So we're not out there by ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "Until Proven Innocent." Stuart Taylor, thanks very much.

STUART TAYLOR: Thank you. Appreciate it.