This case has featured some extraordinary newspaper reporting—chiefly that of Joseph Neff—but also two examples from the other end of the spectrum of journalistic quality. Duff Wilson’s one-sided early coverage, coupled with his widely ridiculed August article, rightfully has earned him a place alongside such Times embarrassments as Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and Howell Raines’ crusade against The Masters. John Stevenson, meanwhile, has distinguished himself with a borderline fraudulent article on the DNA evidence and a string of puff pieces that were interchangeable with Nifong press releases on the campaign website.
Yesterday featured a rare daily double, as Wilson and Stevenson did their best to rescue Nifong from a string of devastating recent publicity.
As Tom Maguire pointed out,
To his credit, however,
That admission alone would disqualify him from writing for the Herald-Sun, where John Stevenson performed some of his most creative work yesterday. “Addressing a witness-credibility issue that echoes the Duke lacrosse rape case,” Stevenson breathlessly informed readers, “the state Court of Appeals has upheld rape and sex-offense convictions against Anthony Michele Lofton of
Stevenson’s piece, which wouldn’t even pass for a poorly argued op-ed at most college papers, may very well be the single most deceptive article published about the case since mid-April.
A casual reader could well assume that the Court of Appeals had just handed down a ruling that undermined the defense’s case. “As in the Lofton case,” Stevenson opined, “defense lawyers have made much of apparent inconsistencies and contradictions by the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case, in which three players are charged with raping and sodomizing an exotic dancer during an off-campus lacrosse party at
As someone who has followed this case pretty closely, I can state with confidence that I have never once heard any defense attorney say anything remotely resembling the argument of Lofton’s brief—that an appeals court, as a matter of law, should overturn a conviction because the accuser gave inconsistent portrayals of events.
On the other hand, lacrosse case attorneys have argued, quite convincingly, that a case without physical evidence and with an accuser whose versions of events wasn’t even consistent on the number of attackers (sometimes zero, sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes three with three accomplices pulling the second dancer away) never should have been brought.
What about the facts of the Lofton case? As Stevenson himself concedes, “Subsequent tests showed that semen on the victim’s shirt conclusively matched Lofton’s DNA.” The victim’s mother walked into the bedroom at the tail end of the assault. (Lofton was the victim’s stepfather.) The victim never claimed more than one person raped her, never required a procedurally flawed photo ID process to identify her alleged assailants.
The lacrosse case, on the other hand, has dozens of witnesses who contradict the accuser’s account, no DNA match between any of the players and the accuser’s samples, and a lineup that violated about every rule in the book.
It turns out that Stevenson didn’t even accurately describe the Lofton decision. In fact, Lofton based his appeal on two principal claims, neither of which Stevenson’s article mentioned. To quote the Court of Appeals decision (which I can only assume Stevenson didn’t read),
Defendant first contends that the trial court erred by failing to grant him a mistrial after a witness reported a statement by defendant during the State’s direct examination that had not been disclosed to defendant during pre-trial discovery . . . Defendant also argues that a sexual assault nurse who testified for the State was improperly allowed to testify to the victim’s credibility.
The court rejected both claims, and only then added, “We likewise find defendant’s remaining arguments [which included, among other items, his call for the appeals court to overturn the verdict on the basis of alleged inconsistencies in the victim’s statement] unpersuasive.”
This aspect of the decision was hardly pathbreaking constitutional law: the court merely turned to precedents such as State v. King, State v. Hyatt, and State v. Powell. In fact, I’m unaware of any state in the country that grants appeals courts the power to overturn jury decisions because of alleged inconsistencies in the accuser’s version of events.
In short, Stevenson blatantly mischaracterized the Lofton decision, and then suggested without foundation that important similarities existed between the Lofton and lacrosse cases. I invite readers to examine the Lofton decision, which I have posted in its entirety here.
One final item: the Lofton ruling came down on October 17: or 15 days before coverage of it appeared in the Herald-Sun. Does the paper normally publish inaccurate summaries of two-week-old cases that break no new law? Or does Editor Ashley reserve this practice for the week before the election?
[Update, 6.18am: Stevenson is still at it, in this morning’s Herald-Sun, as Liestoppers points out. In the article, Stevenson claims to have “uncovered” an affidavit from the owner of the strip club at which the accuser danced casting doubts upon the 60 Minutes video. The owner asserts (the affidavit obviously was obtained from Nifong’s office) that the accuser stopped dancing at the club as of late February.
One problem: While some might assume that the Durham paper’s chief court reporter would familiarize himself with all public documents relating to the case, Stevenson appears not to have read the statement of the person generally described as the accuser’s “driver.” The statement of the “driver,” given to police on April 6, shows that the “scoop” so celebrated this morning is, to put it bluntly, simply wrong:
Saturday, March 11, 2006
Once back in Durham we rode around for about half an hour, then we went to Forest Hill Park. We stayed there for about an hour or so. Then [the accuser] asked me if I would take her to Hillsborough. We got to Platinum around 11 or 12 where she went in and I remained in the car.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Around 2 a.m. I go inside to find her, she asks if we can stay for about another hour. She then asks me if we can stay just one more hour. We leave at 4:30 when the club closes. She then tells me that she has a job at the Millennium Hotel. We get there at 5:15 a.m., where she goes in and I remain in the car. At about 6:15 a.m. she returns and I drive her back to her parent's home.
If North Carolina journalists had an ethics board, Stevenson's last two articles would constitute grounds for filing a complaint.
At the very least, the transparently heavy-handed coverage of the case is harming the Herald-Sun's circulation. In the last six months, according to an AP report out this morning, the paper has experienced the greatest decline of any of the state's largest newspapers, seeing its circulation plunge 7.3 percent daily and 10.5 percent on Sunday. (The N&O, by contrast, fell only 0.1%, well ahead of the national average.) People appear to have realized that if they want to get what amounts to Nifong press releases, they can go to the Nifong campaign website, for free.]