A Troubled Spring at Duke

A few--but only a few--facts are clear and uncontested. On the night of March 13, members of the Duke University lacrosse team, at the time ranked second in the nation, crowded into a small house rented by three of their captains to watch two exotic dancers perform. What happened next is very much a matter of dispute. There are at least two different scenarios, with vastly different implications for everyone involved.

According to the affidavit of a Durham, N.C., police officer, one of the strippers, an African-American woman, told the police she had been raped, sodomized, strangled and beaten by three of the partygoers. The story, with its heavy overtones of race and class, immediately popped onto front pages and TV screens around the country. Duke--an elite school known for its championship basketball teams and privileged, mostly white students--is located in a racially mixed neighborhood in a city that is part Tobacco Road, part Research Triangle. Duke lacrosse players (like lacrosse players at many other top schools) have a reputation for swagger and rowdiness. (In the past three years, 15 of the 47 current members of the team have been arrested for minor charges like holding an open beer in public.) The Durham district attorney, Mike Nifong, has publicly criticized the members of the lacrosse team for failing to come forward and testify about the alleged rape. As it was played in the press, the whole episode seemed right out of Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons," a tawdry tale of pampered jocks who think they can get away with anything.

There is, however, possibly a different side to the story--a chapter from another Tom Wolfe novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a tale of a prosecutor exploiting racial tensions with a trumped-up charge. The players say they are completely innocent, that no one had sex with the stripper that night and that they will be vindicated by DNA tests expected early this week. Joseph Cheshire, a lawyer representing one of the players, says that the prosecutor has unfairly tried the players in the media to serve his own political agenda. (Nifong is up for re-election in May and one of his opponents is black.) "The real story," says Cheshire, "is how he has pandered to the public to stir up race and class division." Nifong did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Cheshire's charge.

The facts as recounted by the police affidavit could hardly be more sordid. The stripper--whose name has been withheld but who told The (Raleigh) News & Observer that she is a student at a local black college and a mother of two--says she was hired by some Duke students to dance, along with another stripper, at a small house just off the Duke campus. They had just begun their performance when the men became "excited and aggressive." According to Nifong, one of the players called out, "Did you bring any sex toys?" When the women answered no, a man said, "That's OK, we'll just use a broom." Frightened, the strippers ran outside to their car. One of the men followed and coaxed one of the women to come back in. When she did, she told police, she was forced into a bathroom and held down while three men forced her to have sex. According to Nifong, she claimed that the men robbed her and that she broke off several fake fingernails clawing one of her attackers.

The other woman was waiting outside in the car. As the two sped off, a neighbor heard one of the boys yelling out, "Hey b----, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt!" The neighbor, Jason Bissey, says that before the woman went back inside, he heard one of the partygoers repeating urgently, "Guys, let's go." He also says the party broke up within five minutes after the women left. The women did not call 911. Rather, a security guard at a grocery store called police to report that one of the women, apparently intoxicated or disoriented, was sitting in a car in the parking lot.

The police took her to the hospital where, according to D.A. Nifong, a nurse concluded that the stripper had suffered injuries consistent with a sexual assault. Two days later, police showed up at the house with a search warrant. According to the police report, they found some evidence that sounds incriminating, including five fake fingernails, the woman's makeup bag and ID, and $160 in cash.

But if the three lacrosse captains who occupy the house had anything to hide, they didn't act like it. They cooperated in the search and voluntarily went down to the police station to give statements, without lawyers present. Their offer to take a lie-detector test was rebuffed by police. No one accompanied her into the bathroom, the players told police. Defense lawyer Cheshire says, "Evidence I've heard indicates that the accuser was acting as if she was inebriated by some substance at the party." He added, "The defense is looking closely into the background of the accuser."

The players' families reject the cliché that the Duke players are privileged louts. Two of the players are sons of retired New York City firemen who responded to the 9/11 attacks. (The proprietor of one local escort agency who refused to be identified because she did not wish to get involved in the probe told NEWSWEEK, "I don't send people to Duke. College students are immature, not alone and there's usually drugs and alcohol.")

According to Duke Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, the police information "left many questions unanswered." A week and a half after the incident, police obtained a court order that 46 of the 47 men on the team (all but its one black member) be required to give DNA samples. By now the parents were hearing about the incident, and they began hiring lawyers, who told the young men to remain silent. The three team captains did come forward to deny the allegations to Duke University President Richard Brodhead.

Nifong told reporters last week that even if the DNA samples don't match the players, he may bring charges. The rapists, he said, could have been wearing condoms. On campus last week, fewer than 300 students participated in a Take Back the Night march. Other knots of students banged pots and pans and complained about racial tension and the response time of the school administration. Almost two weeks after the event, in a bar called Charlie's Pub, recent Duke grad Jill Hopman was startled to see some Duke lacrosse players she recognized slamming down shots and calling out "Duke lacrosse!" (A source close to the families who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter said there were three players in the bar and they made a single, regretful toast to the team, whose season is on hold for now.) Most students seemed primarily worried about the stain on Duke's reputation, and whether Duke will get its share, or "yield," of the best and brightest. This was the week that Duke sent out letters of acceptance to eager high-school students. "I've had 800 conversations with people who are afraid it will hurt our yield and make our diplomas look a little less fancy," said Julia Torti, a senior. Paging Tom Wolfe.