Presuming guilt in a media-driven age

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By Rob Witwer

Seldom is the force of government more concentrated than at the moment a district attorney decides whether to pursue a case against a defendant. We hope our prosecutors are men and women of sound judgment and unimpeachable integrity, and for the most part they are. But every so often a case exposes how vulnerable our system can be to an unprincipled individual.

Although the Duke lacrosse scandal is over, and the accused students have been exonerated, it will long be remembered as one of the most egregious abuses of prosecutorial power in American history. And with “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case,” Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson have written the definitive account of this unbelievable story. It should be required reading for journalists and prosecutors alike.

Most of us are familiar with the story. On March 13, 2006, members of the Duke University lacrosse team held an ill-advised party at an off-campus house and hired two strippers to perform. Shortly afterward one of the women, Crystal Mangum, alleged that she had been raped and physically assaulted by Duke lacrosse players.

Mangum’s story was vague, contradictory, and changed with every telling. Nevertheless, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong charged ahead, trying the accused in the press as well as through the legal system. Facing a tough primary election fight, he saw the case as an opportunity to garner, in his words, “a million dollars of free advertisements” for his struggling political campaign.

In quick order, Nifong granted dozens of press interviews, stoking a media frenzy. Taking a cue from the confident D.A., newspaper and television commentators shoved aside the presumption of innocence and rushed to condemn the accused.

In a column titled “Bonded in Barbarity,” New York Times columnist Selena Roberts called the accused “a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.” Even academics joined the witch hunt, with Duke professor Houston Baker calling the players, “white, violent, drunken men ... veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech.”

Yet while the press and public opinion were on Nifong’s side, the facts were not. Mangum’s fellow stripper was with Mangum all but five minutes that evening and said Mangum’s accusations were a “crock.” And while tests showed DNA from as many as four different men on Mangum, none were members of the lacrosse team. (Nifong later admitted to concealing this evidence from defense lawyers, which is illegal.)

Moreover, time-stamped photos and electronic records demonstrated an almost minute-by-minute chronology of the evening, leaving no doubt that the accuser’s story was false. One photo even showed an accused player at an ATM machine at the same time he was supposed to have been raping Mangum.

As the case unraveled, public opinion shifted and the harsh glare of scrutiny turned to Nifong. In subsequent months, he would be removed from the case, disbarred and convicted of criminal contempt for knowingly making false statements to a judge. The wrongly accused students were declared innocent by the attorney general of North Carolina, putting an end to their nightmarish encounter with the criminal justice system.

According to Taylor and Johnson, the Duke lacrosse case is about more than prosecutorial misconduct and the actions of a rogue D.A. who put political ambition ahead of the truth. It is a parable of our times, exposing the predisposition of so many in the media and academia to use the thinnest of pretexts to capitalize on their agenda. It can, and sadly probably will, happen again.

We all ought to pause and consider the fragility of that most basic legal principle, the presumption of innocence. It is more than just a time-worn precept – it’s the thin line that separates wrongly accused citizens from the awesome power of their government.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.