In the aftermath of DIW’s version of March Madness (the worst of op-eds; Duke faculty publications; “news” articles; and soundbites), I had a request to remember the best work of the case. Today focuses on the media outside of the Duke campus; tomorrow’s post will look at the best from the campus along with the best from the political realm.
In this category, one figure is of towering significance: Jim Coleman. In a June letter to the N&O, the Duke law professor became the first prominent figure to demand Mike Nifong’s recusal. He concisely explained what remains the most significant procedural flaw of this case—Nifong’s instructing the police to violate their own procedures and conduct a do-over lineup confined to suspects. The flawed procedure, as Coleman noted in June, “strongly suggests that the purpose of the identification process was to give the alleged victim an opportunity to pick three members of the lacrosse team who could be charged. Any three students would do; there could be no wrong choice.”
Coleman was months ahead of virtually everyone else on the case.
Moreover, he continued to speak out about Nifong’s misconduct, most spectacularly in the October 60 Minutes broadcast, when he (correctly) noted that in the spring, Nifong “pandered to the 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.”
Two other categories:
Those who have followed the case closely have, no doubt, lost count of how many stories Joe Neff and the team of N&O reporters—Ben Niolet, Michael Biesecker, Anne Blythe, Eric Ferreri, Jane Stancill—have broken. The N&O has published more quality articles on the case than the rest of the print media combined, and from a variety of different angles—Nifong’s procedural misconduct, Nifong’s personal background, police misconduct, Duke campus attitudes and actions.
Beyond the N&O, the non-campus print media has featured the horrific performances of the Herald-Sun and the New York Times, but there was one other significant print media performance: Newsweek. The June 29 article by Evan Thomas and Susannah Meadows provided a major turning point in how the mainstream media approached the case. And Susannah Meadows’ January profile of the Seligmann family reminded everyone that real people have been harmed by Nifong’s massive misconduct.
Six people in this category stand out, in groups of two.
The first two significant dissents in the case came in early May, from very different figures. Jason Whitlock, a Kansas City Star sports reporter, case seems like an updated re-enactment of To Kill a Mockingbird.” He lamented, “If the Duke lacrosse players were black and the accuser were white, everyone would easily see the similarities between this case and the alleged crimes that often left black men hanging from trees in the early 1900s.” Whitlock concluded that the civil rights movement didn’t occur “so that the poor, black and oppressed could surrender the moral high ground and attempt to inflict injustice on the privileged.” In the same week, Stuart Taylor, National Journal’s senior writer, characterized the April 4 lineup as “so grotesquely suggestive and unreliable that one expert compares it to ‘a multiple-choice test with no wrong answers’” and blasted Nifong’s having “rudely spurned repeated requests by defense lawyers for a chance to show him exculpatory evidence.” “Such conduct,”
In early June came two new pathbreaking critiques of the case, from the New York Times op-ed page. Right-of-center David Brooks compared Nifong’s conduct to a witch hunt and apologized for having personally rushed to judgment. Left-of-center Nicholas Kristof urged “some deep reflection . . . about the perniciousness of any kind of prejudice that reduces people — yes, even white jocks — to racial caricatures. This has not been the finest hour of either the news media or academia: too many rushed to make the Duke case part of the 300-year-old narrative of white men brutalizing black women.”
Finally, over the summer, two figures who had initially presumed guilt reconsidered their assumptions. Reviewing the case in August, USC law professor Susan Estrich discovered “a failure to follow standard procedure that is rather mind-boggling.” “At the very least,” she argued, “standard procedure should have been to await the results of tests, and then, given the results, the inconsistencies in the woman's statements, the fact that at least one of the boys seems to have an airtight alibi, investigate further before indicting anyone.” In one of the single best lines this case has produced, Estrich concluded her essay by noting, “There are reasons you follow procedures. In general, they are there to spare outrage.” Estrich would pen three more articles criticizing Nifong, culminating with a New Years’ Day piece terming the accuser a “liar.”
Ruth Sheehan, meanwhile, broke from the pack in June, and after the Elmostafa trial, emerged as a ferocious critic of Nifong, both in her columns and in her blog. Those active in the Recall Nifong-Vote Cheek will recall Sheehan as the sole columnist, either in
Sheehan’s coverage of the Elmostafa trial provides a reminder of another high point of the case—an immigrant cab driver who told the truth when he had no personal agenda to do so, and who wound up the victim of a selective prosecution.
Hat tip: D.E.