Innocent and loving every minute of it

Former members of Duke’s lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape. District Attorney Mike Nifong is now paying the price.

by Paul Hamilton

It is appropriate that the tables have finally turned, and the former Duke lacrosse players who had to endure a bit of a high-tech lynching of their own by being falsely accused and arrested for rape, are now suing the former North Carolina district attorney Mike Nifong – who probably should have had sense enough to throw out the case for lack of evidence in the first place.

In the wake of his poor decision making, Nifong was embarrassed and disbarred at a disciplinary hearing, forced to retire earlier than he had announced, and is now being sued by the very defendants whose lives he has so viscously torn apart with scandalous innuendo and just plain uncorroborated accusations.

Having earlier reached an undisclosed financial settlement with Duke University, the three young men, Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans and Colin Finnerty, probably don’t need the money, but I am sure that the prospect of getting a little payback in the form of a $30 million settlement for “unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys fees and numerous reforms to the way the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations” from the city of Durham and the man who tried to destroy their lives was too irresistible to pass up.

I was surprised when I first was made aware of these allegations and found it hard to believe that a rape and beating could occur in the full view of so many people at a party without anyone trying to stop it or calling the police.

The lawsuit asserts that “the defendants conspired to keep alive a pitifully weak case as Nifong faced a hotly contested re-election bid for the Democratic primary for district attorney.”

Named are Nifong and thirteen other defendants, including former police chief Steven Chalmers, police investigators Benjamin Himan and Mark Gottlieb, and the Director of DNA Security Inc., Brian Meehan.

It is alleged that the defendants “withheld evidence, intimidated witnesses, made public statements with the express purpose to smear and used a photo lineup that featured only lacrosse players so that the accuser could only name players as her potential attackers.”

In addition to other reforms, the former Duke lacrosse players would like to see “an independent committee to publicly review complaints of police misconduct. They also want improved police training, and for Meehan and his lab to be banned from providing reports or expert testimony in a court proceeding for at least ten years.”

Meehan told Nifong by April 2006 that testing had found genetic material in the accuser’s underwear and body from several men, but that this DNA material included none from any lacrosse player. This information apparently was not included in a report summarizing the labs finding’s and Nifong chose not to provide this information to defense attorneys until Oct. 2006.

Apparently the financial compensation and legal reforms requested are not that unusual in civil rights lawsuits, according to Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“They really do feel like they need to be vindicated and money won’t do it. They had to spend a year vindicating themselves. I can understand why they would want to have full relief, especially reforming the system if possible.”

In his apology to the former players and the University community, Duke University President Richard Brodhead said, “The fact is we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they were most in need of support. This was a mistake. I take full responsibility for it, and I apologize for it.”

As authorities began their investigation of these events, Brodhead and the University initially suspended the highly ranked team from any lacrosse play. He later canceled the remainder of their season and allowed longtime coach Mike Pressler to resign last year. Pressler now has his own pending lawsuit against the University.

The Herald-Sun of Durham reported on its Web site that Pressler’s lawsuit alleges the university broke the terms of the confidential settlement when university Senior Vice President John Burness made disparaging remarks about the former coach. In fact, what Pressler is now asking for is that the state court voids the settlement agreement and hold a trail based on his claim of wrongful termination.

What a mess. But if there is any good here, it is that these young men will be in a good position to still positively contribute to society – many who are falsely accused are not.

Luckily these families had the wherewithal to finance a legal defense that cost well in excess of a million dollars – many of us could not afford to do that.

There is another important point here, and it is concerning what should possibly be done to those who make these types of false accusations.

As far as I can tell, no charges have been brought against the accuser in this case. Does she get a pass? What is to deter other young women from trying this same tactic in order to secure potential financial compensation or for the revenge factor of having some innocent persons name and reputation dragged through the mud?

Let’s tally this up now: Nifong disbarred, embarrassed, spending a night in jail and currently being sued. Duke University President Brodhead: Embarrassed, university settles suit with former players, currently in litigation with former coach, university suffers black eye over how it handled the entire incident.

The former Duke Lacrosse players are probably rich, but are also probably scarred for life by the incident and, if nothing else, their names will forever be linked to this highly regrettable set of circumstances.

There are so many better ways this could have turned out. The charges dropped with an apology, other lawyers in the district attorney’s office voicing concern about the legitimacy of the case and involving the state attorney general’s office much earlier, or the case never being brought at all due to the lack of evidence.

Perhaps there is something to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said when he stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Paul Edward Hamilton welcomes comments at [email protected]