On the evening of March 13, 2006, a fateful party at a house in Durham, N.C. plunged the nation and its media into a frenzy of assumptions, social crusading, and miscarried justice. When the Duke men’s lacrosse team hired two exotic dancers during a night of drinking, one of the dancers accused three team members of a brutal gang rape in the bathroom of a run-down rental house just off of Duke’s tree-lined East Campus.
The story scratched every social-justice itch, and everyone seemed more than happy to scratch away, despite a lack of evidence. A little more than a year after the alleged assault, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took the unusual step of declaring the three accused men “innocent,” after a “tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” and prosecuting Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred and convicted of contempt.
I grew up in Durham, blocks from the rental house in question. I understood the community and the media environment into which this “Molotov cocktail,” as one local columnist called it, had been tossed. I followed the story closely, and still was re-amazed by the many misdeeds in the ESPN 30for30 documentary, “Fantastic Lies,” which aired on the 10-year anniversary of the party.
Forthwith, 10 moments from the Marina Zenovich film that will remind you how truly appalling it was.
1. When Nifong Went Hear-No-Evil
Nifong conducted frequent media interviews after the story went national—Fox News, CBS, MSNBC, Newsweek—describing players as uncooperative and worse, and assuring their conviction as part of his primary election campaign. What he didn’t do was talk to the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, about her story. How closed off was he from alternative theories of the case?
“We tried to convince him that we had a story to tell ourselves. Mr. Nifong put his hands over his ears and said I don’t want to hear it,” said Wade Smith, attorney for accused player Collin Finnerty.
“He literally put his hands over his ears,” said Jim Cooney, lawyer for accused player Reade Seligmann.
Seligmann’s mother Kathy added: “You don’t speak to the accuser and you don’t speak to the accused, but you’re positive something happened?”
2. The Rule-Violating Photo Line-Ups
“There were three photographic lineups presented to Crystal Mangum,” according to the documentary and other reporting, all of which violated rules about photo line-ups. They featured nothing but lacrosse players who were present at the party.
“She can’t pick out the wrong person because there’s no one in the lineup other than people she’s been told were actually at the party,” said Joe Cheshire, attorney for accused player Dave Evans.
3. When the Accused and Families Came to Grips With the Situation
The players on the Duke team maintained their innocence, but also their media silence as they waited on their legal fate. “Fantastic Lies” gives to the wrongly accused what media coverage did not at the time of their accusation—their humanity. Seligmann’s mother told a heart-wrenching story of her son delivering the news that he had been accused.
“Mom, I need you to be stronger than you’ve ever been in your entire life. Mom, she picked me,” Kathy recounted in the documentary..
Cooney also emphasized the seriousness of the accusations to Seligmann: “Reade, whatever life you had before March 13 is over. That life is never going to happen,” he said.
4. When Team Captain Dave Evans Publicly Professed Their Innocence
Mangum had named three men in her version of events. Finnerty and Seligman, both 20 at the time, were indicted first, and the rest of the team waited anxiously to see who would be named the third “attacker.” Upon the announcement that it was senior and team captain Dave Evans, he made a passionate profession of innocence to national media.
“First I want to say I’m absolutely innocent of all the charges that have been brought against me today, that Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligman are innocent of all the charges that were brought against them. When the police first came to my home, I fully cooperated and have continued to try to cooperate with them. When they entered in and read the search warrant, my roommates and I helped them find evidence for almost an hour and told them that if they had any questions, we would gladly answer them to show that nothing happened that night…
I am innocent. Reade Seligmann is innocent. Collin Finnerty is innocent. Every member of the Duke University lacrosse team is innocent. You have all been told some fantastic lies.”
5. When NYT’s Public Editor Explained the Media’s Inability to Cover This Fairly
New York Times Public Editor Dan Okrent diagnosed the media coverage of the case in the documentary as journalists excited to find all their pet social-justice issues in one story.
“It was white over black, it was male over female, it was rich over poor, educated over uneducated. All the things that we know happen in the world coming together in one place and journalists, they start to quiver with a thrill when something like this happens,” Okrent said.
6. When Social Justice Protesters Didn’t Understand Due Process
One of the most frequently spotted protest signs in Durham in the wake of the Duke lacrosse case indictments was “Get a Conscience, Not a Lawyer.” The signs were a reference to the alleged “wall of silence” the players had employed to protect the team.
The residents of the house where the party occurred had been cooperative with a search warrant. The entire team submitted to DNA samples. But they were accused by police, Nifong, and media of being obstructive because team members denied accusations and acquired lawyers to get them through the process, as anyone accused of a crime should do.
A poster featuring all of the lacrosse team members’ pictures was distributed widely on campus and around town with the headline, “Please Come Forward.” There was, it turns out, nothing to come forward about.
7. When the Accuser and Accused Were Not In One Place at One Time for 10 Minutes
The three defense teams for the accused put together a timeline for the night in question using cell-phone records, receipts, eyewitness reports, and the accuser’s story. It became clear that there was no time during the window alleged in which all three young men and Mangum were in the same place for long enough for an attack to happen.
“[Seligmann] was literally on video a mile away from the site at the time of the alleged assault,” said teammate Rob Wellington, who had left the party with him to get cash at an ATM a mile from the party, where Seligmann is visible on security footage.
8. When a Coach Stood By His Players and Lost His Job
Coach Mike Pressler had been coaching Duke’s lacrosse time for more than 15 years. During that time, the team had made many NCAA tournament appearances and an appearance in the championship game in 2005. When the story broke about the party and alleged assault, he stood by his team, arguing the season should not be canceled until evidence emerged. They had been expected to be national championship contenders.
The university fired Pressler. He went on to settle with Duke for wrongful termination. He is now the head coach at Bryant University and coached the national men’s lacrosse team in 2010.
“I was actually advised to distance myself from them and at that time that was like blasphemy,” Pressler said in the documentary.
9. When a Young Lawyer Had a Perry Mason Moment That Revealed a Conspiracy
Nifong had a private DNA lab process samples after the state’s public lab came up empty, producing conclusions more favorable to Nifong’s case.
“I was pretty curious to know, how could our state crime lab and this private lab come up with two pretty fundamentally different conclusions,” said attorney Brad Bannon.
Nifong handed over 2,500 pages of raw, technical DNA data to the defense. Bannon bought a book on Amazon about forensic DNA and went to work. He discovered unidentified DNA for numerous men in and on Mangum and her clothing that hadn’t been reported. He found notes indicating lab director Brian Meehan’s DNA was also present.
“So a Ph.D doing everything he can not to contaminate the DNA leaves more DNA in this rape kit than the entire Duke lacrosse team put together,” Cooney said.
At a hearing nine months after the party, Nifong tried to take the defense by surprise, presenting Meehan as his DNA expert before they had prepared to cross-examine him. The defense team decided to have Bannon question him on the spot.
“It became fairly clear about 10-15 minutes into it that the expert realized that Brad [Bannon] knew what the hell he was talking about,” Cooney said.
The defense team confronted Meehan with whether he had agreed with Nifong to withhold some DNA results: “There’s only one answer to this question, and that answer being yes. Because we did not report the reference profiles of those specimens and we did talk about not reporting those,” Meehan said.
There was applause in the courtroom.
10. When the Falsely Accused Players Showed More Maturity Than Their Professors and the Media
All of the accused players are involved with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions. Said Reade Seligmann, upon his exoneration:
“This entire experience has opened my eyes to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they’d do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.”
To this day, most of the Duke faculty and leadership who prejudged the lacrosse players remain in their positions and have never apologized. Media figures who apologized or retracted are few and far between. Instead, most coverage offered grudging reporting on the dismissal of charges.
Ten years later, despite a recent lesson in humility with the Rolling Stone UVA rape story, some of that grudging tone remains, as in Slate’s write-up on the documentary: “[I]t’s a bizarre experience to watch a documentary that expects the viewer to root for a bunch of accused rapists.”