A Rush To Judgment

On March 28, 2006, the four co-captains of the Duke lacrosse team accused of gang-raping an exotic dancer met with university president Richard Brodhead. One of the captains, David Evans, emotionally protested that the team was innocent and apologized for the misbegotten stripper party. "Brodhead's eyes filled with tears," write Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson in their new book on the case, "Until Proven Innocent" (420 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $26.95). Brodhead "said that the captains should think of how difficult it had been for him." The misbehavior of the players, said Duke's president, "had put him in a terrible position." Listening to Brodhead, Robert Ekstrand, a lawyer representing the captains and many of their teammates, "felt his blood starting to boil," write Taylor and Johnson. "Here, he thought, is a comfortable university president wallowing in self-pity in front of four students who are in grave danger of being falsely indicted on charges of gang rape, punishable by decades in prison."

It is possible to feel sympathy for Brodhead (who in an interview with Taylor denied he was tearful or self-pitying at the meeting). The president of a modern, elite university must be careful not to cross his politically correct faculty. Brodhead had already lost face with some professors (who dislike the admissions break given to athletes) by appearing to kowtow before Duke's iconic basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, to stop him from jumping to the pros. Brodhead had to worry about potential riots if he were seen as an apologist for the lacrosse players. They were white and the alleged victim was black; Duke is seen as a bastion of white privilege in its racially mixed hometown of Durham, N.C.

Still, as unforgivingly portrayed in "Until Proven Innocent," Brodhead appears weak-kneed. In their vivid, at times chilling account, the authors are contemptuous of prosecutor Mike Nifong, whom the North Carolina legal establishment disbarred for his by now well-documented misconduct. (Nifong's lawyer, David Freedman, says "there are a number of people who testified at the state bar proceeding that [Nifong] was a very caring career prosecutor.") But their most biting scorn is aimed at the "academic McCarthyism" that they say has infected top-rated American universities like Duke.

A much-beloved dean at Yale before Duke hired him away in 2004, Brodhead is shy and sensitive, dryly witty and poetic, the authors write. Nifong, the Durham D.A. (who was held in criminal contempt of court last week for lying to a judge while pursuing the case and sentenced to a day in jail), is depicted as a bully and blowhard. What the two men had in common was an almost willful disregard for the facts. Brodhead took a high-road stance: Duke could not take sides in a criminal matter. But, according to the authors, he rebuffed the offers of the players' families and lawyers to show him evidence. (The authors write, however, that Brodhead stressed the presumption of innocence in his public statements.)

Nifong never discussed the case with the accuser, the stripper who cried rape and whom he described as "my victim." Nifong knew he was on thin ice. According to police testimony, after hearing the holes in the evidence on March 27, he declared, "You know, we're f–––ed." That was just before he told reporters the woman had been brutally raped and the team was a bunch of hooligans who were stonewalling. (Freedman says the comment was made in reference to the fact that there had been no immediate search warrant issued on the house where the party occurred.)

By and large, the press did not let the facts get in the way of a good race-class-sex- violence morality play. Thanks in part to the reporting and guidance of Taylor, a NEWSWEEK CONTRIBUTING editor, NEWSWEEK was the first major publication to pick apart the prosecution's case, in an article on June 29, 2006. But the magazine also put mug shots of two of the wrongly charged players on its cover on May 1 and, in the cover story I wrote, clucked at doting parents who do not want to see that their sons could turn into "thugs." Taylor and Johnson show that the players were crude and drank too much, but that they had no prior record of racism or sexual violence.

The authors make the Duke faculty look at once ridiculous and craven. For months, not one of the university's nearly 500-member faculty of arts and sciences stood up to question the rush to judgment against the lacrosse team. So much for the ideal of the liberal-arts university where scholars debate openly and seek the truth. ("This book provides one interpretation," says Duke spokesman John Burness.) The only group that shows any common sense in "Until Proven Innocent" is the student body. Aside from a few noisy activists who assumed the players were guilty, Duke undergrads mostly overlooked the political correctness of their professors.