I think that [Nifong] pandered to the [black] community by saying ‘I’m gonna go out there and defend your interests in seeing that these hooligans who committed the crime are prosecuted. I’m not gonna let their fathers, with all of their money, buy you know big-time lawyers and get them off. I’m doing this for you.’ You know, what are you to conclude about a prosecutor who says to you, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get this set of defendants?’ What does it say about what he’s willing to do to get poor black defendants?
--Professor James Coleman, 60 Minutes
In Saturday’s Durham News, John Schwade had a thought-provoking column suggesting that the lacrosse case didn’t represent the first time that Nifong had sought to pander to black voters.
The first occasion came in January 2006, when Nifong appeared at a local church, where he addressed a group called Parents of Murdered Children. Schwade described the scene:
After sympathetically describing how he would handle murder cases and assist survivors, Nifong outraged the bereaved mothers with this non sequitur: “You have to remember that when there’s a murder, two mothers lose their sons. There’s another mother whose son will spend the rest of his life in prison.”
This evoked an outcry of “No!” in unison, followed by one mother’s chilling refutation: “She can visit her son in prison. If I want to talk to my son, I got to talk to dirt!”
Despite living in a city where nearly 40 percent of the people are black, Nifong appeared to have little or no contact with the African-American community before becoming D.A. During the primary, his campaign finance reports suggested no grassroots support. Virtually all of his contributions came from lawyers or other people with business before the D.A.’s office, with almost nothing from community leaders, or colleagues in volunteer groups, or longtime non-professional friends or associates.
As his campaign began, then, the appearance before Parents of Murdered Children suggested that Nifong had a one-dimensional, almost caricatured view of blacks. Most prominent black leaders are well to the left on issues of criminal justice and what many of my CUNY colleagues term the nation’s “prison-military-industrial complex”; surely, he reasoned, this all-black audience of mothers would feel the same.
Schwade termed Nifong’s miscalculation “egregious. Blacks are not in solidarity with the worst among them, those who murder their children, or with the mothers of these murderers.” The columnist described Nifong’s approach to the meeting as “indicative of a stereotypical view of blacks.”
Citing the comments of NCCU student Chan Hall—comments that captured the atmosphere of the infamous April 11 NCCU forum—Schwade wonders if Nifong could have believed “that the worst sentiments expressed by members of a diverse group, the demand for injustice instead of justice, were representative of or acceptable to the entire group.”
Not, of course, the “entire group.” This is a controversy where two of the three biggest heroes were African-Americans (Coleman and Moez Elmostafa, joined by women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel). Yet this affair has featured a disturbing undercurrent of black racism from figures of some standing, unchecked by the city’s leadership.
Chan Hall was the runner-up for Student Government speaker at NCCU, and currently chairs the elected Student Government’s legislative affairs committee. Harris Johnson was a former official in
Meanwhile, the appallingly demagogic actions of the state NAACP continue apace. Last spring, the organization’s president, William Barber, issued in a ten-point position paper urging calm and concluding, “We must face the results of the investigation when all of the facts are in.”
Yet the organization’s subsequent behavior has contradicted these words. Case “monitor” Irving Joyner has bent over backwards to spin events in Nifong’s favor; legal affairs director Al McSurely has all but foreshadowed the Nifong playbook. And in August, the state NAACP’s website posted a legal memorandum whose bias might have made even Nifong blush. Among the memorandum’s incredible, and inaccurate, claims:
- “The only Black [lacrosse] player, a freshman, left the party before the dancers arrived.” [This statement is untrue, as Devon Sherwood confirmed when he spoke with ABC; even Nifong had never made such a claim.]
- “The lacrosse team member asked the women to dance and simulate sex acts between them, similarly to scenes from a book and movie that several of the Lacrosse team members enjoyed reading and talking about—American Psycho.” [No evidence for either part of this assertion exists; Kim Roberts, certainly, has never made such a claim.]
- “Around 12:20, some men who saw the vulnerable Ms. M returning to the house called their friends who had taken cabs and gone to get some cash from an ATM. Some returned. Sometime between approximately 12:21 and 12:53, Ms. M has stated she was kidnapped into the bathroom, beaten, robbed, choked, and vaginally and anally raped.” [The memo, it appears, hasn’t been adjusted to fit either Nifong’s new timeline or his new theory of the crime; the purpose of this item seemed to be to suggest that Reade Seligmann could be something other than demonstrably innocent.]
- “The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) at
confirmed [the accuser’s] injuries matched her reports when she was examined about 2 hours later.” [As Nifong himself has now conceded, this assertion is wholly false, since neither physical nor forensic evidence exists of rape.] Duke Hospital
- “The three defendants they have two mountains to climb. First, they must deflect public attention from their boorish, racist, and illegal behavior by mounting outlandish attacks on the survivor and the D.A. Second, they must deal with a mountain of physical evidence, that is corroborated by, we have reason to believe, accounts of some of the men who were at the party who have cooperated with the police and the D.A. from early on.” [No evidence exists that any player provided statements to Nifong that told the story the D.A. wanted to hear.]
- “[Joseph] Neff apparently has complete access to the records Nifong has turned over to [Joseph]
, as long as Neff spins the story against the State.” [This claim is absurd; the NAACP exhibited no problems with the reporting of Neff when Neff worked to free a falsely imprisoned African-American, Howard Dudley.] Cheshire
Cash Michaels’ latest column, meanwhile, brings expressions of outrage from prominent Durham African-Americans at the defense’s change-of-venue motion. That motion, it’s worth recalling, mentions four items as requiring a change of venue: (1) Nifong’s procedurally improper statements; (2) the actions of the Duke faculty and staff; (3) biased coverage in the Herald-Sun; and (4) community polarization.
The comments of Andrea Harris, president of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development, typify those that Michaels has featured in his two most recent columns. Harris termed the change-of-venue motion “ludicrous,” explaining, “If there are any people in
Admirable (and understandable) sentiments, to be sure. Yet, apart from the early, consistent critiques of Coleman, no evidence has emerged to substantiate Harris’ claim—at least as it applies to residents of
Those voters seemed nonplussed by Nifong’s string of ethical improprieties in the lacrosse case—from his procedurally improper statements to his ordering police to run a lineup that violated their own procedures to his refusal to consider exculpatory evidence. According to an early November poll from Ethical Durham, 47 percent of
Given Nifong’s conduct—which now has been repudiated by both the State Bar and the Conference of District Attorneys—this 3-to-1 support for Nifong’s actions belies Harris’ assertion of a community unusually sensitive to “fairness and justice.”
An alternative path did exist: the state NAACP could have, as Coleman suggested, used the case to highlight the problems of prosecutorial and police abuse, problems that disproportinately target African-Americans.
Or the local black leadership could have followed the lead of Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a prominent black commentator whose work is often featured at the left-of-center Huffington Post. In a recent op-ed, Hutchinson demanded that the charges be dropped, so as to bring to a close “one of the dreariest episodes in the history of rape and racial victimization cases.”
Hutchinson also searched for lessons to be learned from the case. One, he contends, “is the danger of shouting race in a rape case.” The false allegation in this case, Hutchinson notes, “leaves rape victims of any color and income wide open to the charge that they will falsely shout rape to cover up their sexual misdeeds,” which might cause prosecutors more rational than Nifong to show more hesitance about pursuing true rape claims.
Black leaders, Hutchinson lamented, “missed a chance to go one step further and urged the Duke protesters to cool their rhetoric until all the facts were in. They didn't.” Why? “The great fear of black leaders is that if they rebuke blacks who abuse race to grab headlines, it's tantamount to race treason.”
This unwillingness to challenge the demagogues has paved the way for the last, desperate gap of the figure Liestoppers now terms “Defendant Nifong.”
With the D.A.’s advice coming solely from the Troika—wife Cy Gurney, “investigator” Linwood Wilson, and resident homophobe Victoria Peterson—the Nifong camp played the race card one last time. Last Friday, Nifong citizens’ committee co-chair Peterson (joined by a figure or figures that she refused to name) filed a “civil rights” complaint with the Justice Department.
Among the claims? Peterson says she wants to stand up for the rights of gay people. That’s rich coming from a figure who said the following of gays and lesbians: “Many of them are infected with diseases, and their lifestyles are very, very dangerous. Many don’t live to be senior citizens. Who’s going to pay this expense if they get sick in their gay lifestyle?” And if “they [gays and lesbians] are not infected with diseases . . . they will be, even women.” She even suggested to a North Carolina House committee that all gays are crossdressers.
In some ways, Peterson’s bizarre, frivolous filing represents a fitting conclusion to the role race has played in this case. Since March, Durham has witnessed a pattern of civil rights violations—but by Nifong, of the three players that he targeted. And these violations have occurred with the silence—or worse—of most prominent members in the community that claims a sincere attachment to civil rights for all.
Hat tip: D.D.