Duke assault trial proves thorny

On the brink of spring break, players from Duke University’s lacrosse team hired two exotic dancers to perform at a party. According to police reports, three men forced one of the entertainers — a college student and mother of two — into a bathroom and “sexually assaulted her anally, vaginally, and orally” for 30 minutes. Based on observational data, a specially trained nurse concluded that she had injuries consistent with rape.

And so the frenzy began. The accuser is black, the team 98.7 percent white. Worse, neighbors reported hearing players yell racial slurs at the departing women. Concerned citizens and students in Durham, N.C., which has roughly the same number of blacks as whites, organized daily protests on campus and near the house where the alleged crime took place. African American Studies professor Houston Baker accused Duke’s administration, which is led by the justly popular Richard Brodhead, the former dean of Yale College, for not doing enough in response to “white, male athletic violence,” “drunken white male privilege” and “violent, white, male, athletic privilege.” Others echoed these sentiments with fewer adjectives.

Durham’s white district attorney, Michael Nifong, took an aggressive stance, responding to the players’ proclamations of innocence by saying that they “don’t want to admit to the enormity of what they have done,” and continuing much in the same vein during the 40 hours of press interviews he granted prior to April 3. Coincidentally, he faces an election on May 2 that will determine whether he stays in office. And, true to the surreal nature of this case, one of his challengers is black.

While Brodhead suspended the team’s season, reporters touted the Wall Street pedigree of some of the players’ families, and invented a false racial dichotomy between Duke and the surrounding community. (Nearly four in 10 Duke students are minorities.) What the press corps doesn’t know, but would have been obsessed with had it happened, is that the son of General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner is an excellent lacrosse player who nearly made the team last fall. They also don’t know that Ryan McFadyen, the man who sent an e-mail to his teammates that appeared to advocate skinning strippers, seemed like a polite, well-behaved individual when I was his resident adviser at Duke last year.

Although I am prepared to believe that a sexual assault happened that night and sincerely believe that those responsible for the revolting racial slurs should be harshly punished, based on the evidence, the government’s case is imploding. First, the DNA results that Nifong had made central to his prosecution came back completely negative. He correctly pointed out that most sexual assault convictions do not involve DNA, but most cases don’t involve three individuals, three orifices, an extended period of time, and a defense attorney who builds his case around DNA evidence before it comes back. Then police tapes revealed that the accuser was found “passed out drunk” on the night of the attack and that she had spent time in jail after a 2002 incident when she stole a taxi while she had an astronomical blood alcohol level and led police on a high-speed chase that ended with her trying to run down an officer with the car.

Most damning, however, is the fact that one of the two players indicted so far, Reade Seligmann, has an alibi corroborated by third parties and security cameras. The last photograph of the women dancing appears at 12:03 a.m., and a cab driver confirms that Seligmann called him at 12:14 a.m. and was picked up five minutes later a block and a half from the house and driven to an ATM where he made a withdrawal at 12:24 a.m. Seligmann also claims to have made other outgoing calls between 12:03 and 12:14 a.m. If true, these facts make it very unlikely that this young man was involved in any sexual assault. At best, the accuser and the district attorney have fingered the wrong guy. At worst, the accuser has committed a fraud — perhaps out of anger and indignation — that insults the real suffering of rape victims.



Matthew Gillum is a first-year graduate student in molecular and cellular physiology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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