Stuart Taylor ’70 has covered law for more than 25 years as a reporter and columnist at publications including The New York Times, National Journal, and Newsweek. But he says it’s rare to see a case of prosecutorial misconduct as blatant as the 2006 accusations of rape against three Duke lacrosse players. Usually, he says, misconduct only is discovered after the fact. He contends that, in this case, you could see it happening day by day, as prosecutor Michael Nifong asserted things that simply weren’t true. Nifong, says Taylor, “was trying to put into prison for 30 years people he had strong reasons to believe were innocent.”
Taylor and his co-author, Brooklyn College history professor and blogger KC Johnson, chronicle the affair in Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, published by Thomas Dunne Books in September. The book goes beyond the legal facts and assesses the role of the Duke faculty and the media in the affair, which ended with the three young men declared innocent by the North Carolina attorney general, Nifong being disbarred, and Duke’s president apologizing for abandoning the players.
Taylor, a lawyer as well as a journalist, heard from a Princeton friend whose son was on the team that the case as initially presented in the media was dubious. After getting a look into the evidence the prosecutor handed over to the defense as part of the discovery process, Taylor says he was 99 percent sure that the charges were fraudulent.
The book examines the litany of errors: Nifong never interviewed the alleged victim but said publicly that he knew she had been raped, despite an absence of medical evidence. He refused to see evidence from two of the accused that they weren’t at the party when the alleged rape took place. And he and police violated protocol when they put together a photo lineup made up entirely of lacrosse players.
The authors say Nifong was far from the only person at fault. According to them, many members of the faculty seized on the opportunity to advance an agenda based on assumptions of persistent racial, gender, and class oppression. And the media couldn’t resist the historically and politically charged narrative of rich white jocks sexually assaulting a single black mother from the other side of the tracks.
The authors acknowledge the reputation of lacrosse players in general and at Duke specifically as hard-drinking bullies. Taylor says he heard reports of boorish behavior by the 2006 squad, but that on close inspection, there was no evidence of serious misbehavior that hurt or threatened anyone else. The global lesson for universities and everyone else, he says: Beware of stereotyping.
The lacrosse players have been able to get on with their lives, Taylor suspects, because the state’s attorney general took the unusual step of declaring that they were innocent, not just that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute them. Taylor ends the book with a quote from the panel that disbarred Nifong, in which the commission’s chairman said he hoped the case would “be a reminder to everyone that it’s the facts that matter.”