COMMENTS: Duke’s Turn Next

By the strangest of coincidences, the spotlight shifted from Rutgers University's women's basketball team to Duke University men's lacrosse team. The former are not whores; the latter are not rapists. The Attorney General of North Carolina organized a press conference for the official announcement of the exoneration of a trio of Duke athletes who had been falsely accused of rape. Both ABC and CBS led with the ceremony but CBS went the whole hog. Katie Couric anchored the newscast from North Carolina and turned the case into the Story of the Day by backing up her news item with a three-part feature series and her in-depth interview with the parents of one of the athletes.

There was little breaking news to provide the hook for CBS' Decision at Duke marathon. The rape charges themselves had already been dropped last December. This announcement merely made it official that the entire case was closed. All three networks reported the facts of Attorney General Roy Cooper's press conference. He called the formerly accused "victims of a tragic rush to judgment," according to CBS' Couric. Cooper went out of his way to assert that the three athletes were "not just legally not guilty," as ABC's Jim Avila put it, but "labeled, in no uncertain terms, innocent." He also went out of his way to repudiate Michael Nifong, the District Attorney in Durham, for his tactics in bringing the prosecution. The three young men learned how "innocent people can be prosecuted," as NBC's Martin Savidge put it.

Would the three athletes--David Evans, aged 24, Collin Finnerty, aged 20, Reade Seligmann, aged 21--survive the stigma of having been accused rapists, even if wrongfully? ABC's David Muir (subscription required) pointed out that Evans, a graduate, lost a job on Wall Street; Finnerty and Seligmann, both undergraduates, have not returned to the university. "Moving on, scarfree, will be almost impossible given all the media attention when the case broke," mused Muir, even though that attention included Evans' categorical insistence on his innocence: "You have all been told some fantastic lies." CBS' Couric said they had been "presumed guilty"--but she did not say by whom--and found it "stunning" when the current Duke lacrosse team demonstrated in support of the trio.

The upshot of the year-long saga may well be Nifong's ruin, "branded a rogue prosecutor," according to NBC's Savidge: he rigged a photo-ID lineup; he withheld DNA evidence from defense lawyers; he publicly branded the team as "a bunch of hooligans." CBS' Bob Orr pointed out that at the time when Nifong, a white man, "openly proclaimed the players' guilt" and "played up the racial overtones of the case" he was running for reelection in a "heavily black district." Nifong is being investigated by the state bar and could lose his license to practice law. ABC's Avila quoted Nifong's lawyer: "Sometimes those who accuse lie. A prosecutor should not be held responsible for that." As for the woman who filed the charges, none of the networks even mentioned her name.


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