Ten years ago this week, the fateful events began to unfold that would soon escalate into the national scandal of the Duke lacrosse rape case, also known as the Duke rape hoax. It is a story with startling relevance to our present cultural moment — which is why far too many pundits are anxious to downplay its uncomfortable lessons.
The case, in which a black woman claimed she was assaulted by three white men at a Duke lacrosse team party where she’d been hired as a stripper, ignited a firestorm around issues of race and gender. Even without today’s social-media outrage machine, the rush to judgment on the campus and in the media was swift, ruthless, and full of noble anger. It also was wrong. A year later, all charges against the young men were dropped — among them Colin Finnerty of Garden City — and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper made a statement affirming their innocence. The prosecutor, Mike Nifong, was later disbarred for suppressing evidence favorable to the defense and jailed for one day for contempt of court. (The accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, is in prison for the murder of her boyfriend.)
Commenting on the case at the time, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof noted that a presumption of guilt against affluent white males was no better than a presumption of guilt against poor black males in the 1930s. That’s a controversial message in 2016, when issues of structural racism against African-Americans dominate national discourse and believing rape accusations is a feminist commandment.
As a result, ESPN’s documentary on the case, “Fantastic Lies,” has been taken to task by several reviewers for being too sympathetic to the falsely accused men. The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato finds it “irksome” that the documentary presents “these resilient young athletes and their families” as “the real victims.” Slate notes that “it’s a bizarre experience to watch a documentary that expects the viewer to root for a bunch of accused rapists,” particularly “wealthy white guys” who ended up with settlements from Duke and with good jobs.
Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson, co-author of the acclaimed book on the Duke case, “Until Proven Innocent,” told me in an email that this argument is perverse for several reasons. If the defendants had not been white and affluent, he says, they probably would not have been indicted in the political context of Nifong’s re-election campaign, or vilified by professors and journalists. But more important, Johnson says, “The case shows how a rape defendant — even a wholly innocent one not encountering an unethical prosecutor like Nifong — who can’t hire first-class lawyers faces enormous obstacles.”
“Believe the survivor” zealotry hasn’t spared black men. Critics of last year’s campus rape documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” have argued the film presents a skewed account of charges against former Florida State University football player Jameis Winston and Harvard law student Brandon Winston, black men accused of raping white women and exonerated — but presumed guilty by the filmmakers. And there has been a near-total media silence about a recent lawsuit by two black men who were summarily expelled from Ohio’s Findlay University after an accusation of rape by a white female student, despite strong evidence that the encounter was consensual.
The Duke lacrosse case reminds us that false accusations of sex crimes do happen and that the wrongly accused are the real victims — even when affluent, white and male. Perhaps, in honor of the anniversary, journalists should be made to write “presumption of innocence” on the blackboard 500 times. It looks like they can use the exercise.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.