I was eagerly leafing through a recent issue of the Economist magazine when I stumbled upon an article entitled “Presumed Guilty” that brought me to a full stop. The article concerned a new book, Until Proven Innocent, by Stuart Taylor and K.C. Johnson, and its subject, the Duke lacrosse rape case of April 2006, in which African-American exotic dancer Crystal Mangum accused three members of the Duke University lacrosse team of having racially slurred, beaten and gang-raped her at a team party. I was taken aback not at the news that the charges against the lacrosse players were eventually dropped a year later, of which I was already aware. Indeed, upon hearing that news last spring, I had sort of subconsciously assumed that the charges had been dropped not necessarily because the charges were false or the defendants innocent, but simply because neither the available evidence nor the victim’s testimony were solid enough to stand up in court. No, what floored me was the discovery that Ms. Mangum’s accusation against the lacrosse players, far from being merely vulnerable to the glib sophistry of a slick defense lawyer, was in reality, as the Economist puts it, “a transparent lie from the start.” As Messrs. Taylor and Johnson detail in their book, it seems Ms. Mangum, who was picked up by the police shortly after the incident, never mentioned having been assaulted in any way until it appeared she might have to spend some time in a mental health facility. In the course of her questioning by the authorities, she subsequently recanted her initial claim—then later withdrew that recantation. Her various accounts of the night’s events included a number of mutually contradictory claims; at different times, for instance, she described her attackers as numbering anywhere from 2 to 20. The police officers who interrogated her on the first night understandably viewed Ms. Mangum’s story with outright incredulity—particularly in light of her admitted history of alcohol and drug addiction and her penchant for “making up far-fetched stories”, according to the Economist article. What made the biggest impression on me, however, was the statement made by her fellow stripper. In the latter’s view, Ms. Mangum’s claims were, in a word, “a crock.” None of this stopped unscrupulous Durham Country D.A. Mike Nifong—then facing a tight campaign for reelection—from charging three Duke lacrosse players with rape several weeks later.
None of it stood in the way of the sordid and in some cases downright illegal tactics to which he resorted, including smearing the defendants in the press and initially withholding contradictory DNA evidence from the defense team, and later simply ignoring it. Nor did it rein in the media circus and political feeding frenzy that predictably ensued. We all remember the public flagellation of the defendants by legions of self-righteous interlopers whose limited knowledge of the facts of the case was tainted by the implicit bias resulting from Nifong’s prosecutorial misconduct. The newspaper headlines screaming about “a night of racial slurs, growing fear and finally sexual violence”. The students protesting at Duke and on campuses nationwide. The Duke administration’s pusillanimous failure to urge that their own students be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The insipid prattle of crusading left-liberal professors who gave lectures and TV interviews denouncing the hapless athletes without laying eyes on a shred of evidence. And this parade of horrors would hardly be complete without the demagoguery of that slick racial warhorse, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and the hordes of media lemmings who have effectively crowned him the de facto Voice of Black America. None of the aforementioned bandwagon-riders would warrant the scorn heaped on them on this page if the charges against the lacrosse players had been true. But they weren’t. They were false—utterly, shamefully false—and their falsehood should remind us of what common sense should have told us from the giddy-up. As outsiders, as third parties completely uninvolved in the case, who were not at the scene of the alleged crime nor had any firsthand knowledge of the evidence concerning it, we had no way of knowing whether the lacrosse players were innocent or guilty. The right response to the original allegations, both from the black community and from society at large, would have been to at least wait for the criminal trial to proceed and a verdict to be handed down before making any judgments of the defendants. But alas, too many observers felt the need to immediately roast the defendants in the court of public opinion, without any pretense of dispassionate assessment of the case on its merits.
Implicit in this detestable rush to judgment was a deeply poisonous kneejerk assumption on the part of so many of the talking heads: the accuser was a black woman; her alleged violators were affluent whiteboys; therefore these “young, white, violent, drunken men veritably given license to rape, maraud, [and] deploy hate speech”, to quote former Duke English professor Houston Baker, must have been guilty as sin. I can only hope there is no need to dissect this claptrap in too much detail. If it is not self-evident to you, the reader, that white skin, masculinity, and playing an upper-crust sport at an elite university do not make a person a natural-born racist and rapist any more than poverty, femininity and black skin make a person a saint whose word is to be taken as gospel truth, then, truly, I fear for your future.
The hell of it is that this is not the first time a troubled African-American woman has desperately resorted to bearing false witness of rape against white men—tragically tainting the credibility of real rape and hate crime victims into the bargain. Almost exactly twenty years ago, young Tawana Brawley accused six white men in a small upstate New York town of abducting and raping her, only to see the case collapse for lack of any evidence to substantiate her claims. (The good Rev. Sharpton made his bones representing Ms. Brawley, leading the pack with a string of libelous charges hurled at the defendants.) Unfortunately, it seems, America has not learned the lesson of Tawana Brawley.
I remember the early Republican primaries in the 2000 election, in which the panel of questioners asked candidate Alan Keyes—and only Alan Keyes—for his “thoughts” on the case of the NYPD killing of Amadou Diallo the year before. I myself am no fan of Mr. Keyes, but I still applauded when he wisely replied that he was neither a witness to the shooting itself nor a direct observer of the investigation or the evidence, and so quite naturally drew no conclusions and had no “thoughts” on the matter. There’s one page we should all take from Keyes’ book.
At least some true justice has finally been done in the Duke case: the abominable Mr. Nifong has been disbarred and was jailed for one day for his shady deeds, while Duke President Richard Brodhead publicly apologized for abandoning his students to the hounds. As for me, this shameful business has reminded me of my older brother’s wise admonition to take everything I hear with a grain of salt—a bit of advice I intend to act on, particularly when gender and race are involved. My friend’s father recently asked me if I’d demonstrated in support of the Jena 6. I told him I hadn’t, but didn’t have the heart to tell him why: not because I think the defendants had the original attempted murder charges coming—for all I know their cause is entirely just—but because I quite simply do not and cannot have the right answer. After the Duke debacle, I no longer trust the media, outspoken Facebook groups or Al Sharpton to give me an unbiased, credible picture of what happened in Jena. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I won’t be fooled again.