[7 December 2007]
What made the Duke lacrosse rape scandal so unnerving was its broad and collaborative cast of villains. Down the line, from Mike Nifong, Durham County’s pathetically opportunistic D.A., to the sensationalist media, to the Group of 88, Duke’s fulminating academic mob, this alliance reduced the presumption of innocence to a spectacular sham. Until Proven Innocent, a scrupulous and spellbinding account of this far-reaching abomination, does not allow any of the misdeeds visited on Dave Evans, Colin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann to go untouched. The collective rap sheet, in fact, grows disturbingly long. Hollywood could barely cook up such bald-faced deception or manage a script with as many enablers of injustice. By the end, you’re left wondering how this many people could act so contemptuously of truth and the law.
Members of the ‘05-‘06 Duke men’s lacrosse squad certainly could not have anticipated this firestorm. But soon after their 16 March 2006 strippers-included kegger, a righteous howl erupted. Rape was the formal charge, though, as the public fallout deepened, the episode accrued larger dimensions. Allegedly, here was a uniquely American drama of racism, sexism, and class privilege. The details couldn’t have converged so perfectly. As co-authors Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson wrote, Durham, North Carolina is a community “marinated in the tortured racial history of the Old South ...”. Nearly 44 percent of its 210,000 citizens are black, and an unfortunately high number of them struggle to maintain a livelihood. Crystal Mangum, the exotic dancer who set this fracas in motion, was one of those black residents. The individuals who she was to perform for were almost uniformly white. She was of a working class background. Most of the Duke lacrosse players came from wealth. These facts generated a ground reality of combustible town-gown relations. But lurking between the lines was a politically correct fantasyland, where the slogan “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” would soon be applied with near impunity.
On its face, the episode seemed ideally suited for Mike Nifong, who was then serving as Durham County’s interim D.A. His partial term was coming to a close. In order to win that year’s democratic primary, he would need to improve his profile among black voters. The rape scandal fell fortuitously into his lap and, from there, Nifong race-baited to political success. On 28 March, he offered this indignant comment: “The thing that most of us found so abhorrent, and the reason I decided to take it over myself, was the combination gang-like rape activity accompanied by the racial slurs and general racial hostility.”
Such aggressive grandstanding established the tone for an increasingly public and embittered affair. Activist students at Duke and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) quickly took to the streets with cries of “time to confess” and “shame”. Then, in early April, the notorious Group of 88 unleashed its incensed manifesto on the subject, unequivocally asserting that “something ‘happened to this young woman.’” Duke fell into a rhetorical civil war, though passions flared most heatedly in opposition to the laxers. The media naturally smelled blood as well. From print press like the local Herald Sun and the New York Times to the Joe Scarboroughs and Nancy Graces of cable commentary, news wires were abuzz with half-truths and bombastic opinions. Taylor and Johnson trenchantly summarized the tenor of these proceedings: “Lynch the privileged white boys. And due process be damned.” More and worse was to follow.
As a history, the rape scandal appears unwieldy with these layered storylines, plot shifts, characters, and themes. But Taylor, a legal expert and contributing editor for Newsweek, and Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, relay the events like a lucid procedural. Except for its final chapters, Until Proven Innocent is anchored to a chronological narrative, beginning prior to the ‘06 lacrosse season and ending with the official exoneration of Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann. In between are the gritty details of police misconduct, withheld evidence, and coarse politicking, which crop up with alarming frequency. The authors keep the narrative tight by restraining themselves rhetorically. Their confidence in the power of this story’s numerous miscarriages of justice is so firm that they eschew supplemental editorializing, deeming it superfluous, maybe even redundant. When Taylor and Johnson describe Nifong’s manipulation of the photo ID lineup or his routine avoidance of critical evidence, the actions speak on their own.
Nifong is the figure most heavily under the microscope but he was far from the sole offender. The media, academia, police, and even low-level hospital employees were all complicit in subverting the truth. As much as anything, Until Proven Innocent is a devastating chronicle of these individual and institutional failures, namely the failure to perform one’s job. Instead of seeking out the truth and upholding civic ideals, press outlets parroted Nifong’s sexed-up frenzy-mongering, ivory-tower educators smeared the laxers (“farm animals” was among the insults) for the heinous implications of their skin color, gender, and economic standing (please note the sarcasm), and even peripheral actors like Tara Levicy, a sexual assault nurse examiner trainee, allowed myopic agendas to fog their judgement. Levicy interviewed Mangum shortly after the party and, with scant physical evidence, determined that the purported assault had occurred. Later she admitted that “she had never doubted the truthfulness of a single rape accuser.” Here, feminist overkill brazenly trumped honest scientific inquiry. Levicy’s role is one of the many unearthed details that make Until Proven Innocent as absorbing as it is troubling.
Taylor and Johnson use this thick web of deceit for more than just narrative sparks. It’s also a backdrop for plugging overdue reform. They convincingly advocate changes to stringent state-level rape laws that inhibit a judge’s ability to dismiss even the most bogus charges. Such a law could have imperiled Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann had the case gone to trial. They also tout widespread DNA testing in criminal matters, barriers to the expansive scope of prosecutorial power, and greater intellectual diversity on college campuses (an aim always better in theory than in practice). Their slate is a model of bipartisan appeal. Liberals rightly concerned about precarious civil liberties could find as much to like as conservatives outraged by the perceived intellectual rot in halls of American higher learning. Left to right, the calls for action ring true. That the Duke rape scandal could elicit such a wide-ranging discourse speaks to its relevance as a social, political, and legal signpost for America.
Taylor and Johnson seamlessly tap into these many layers. Until Proven Innocent is a police procedural, a courtroom drama, a social commentary, a correction of spurious history, and most simply, an engrossing story of heroes and villains. Sadly, the book becomes most meaningful when you realize it never should have been written in the first place.