Today is Michael Vick’s first court appearance following his indictment on federal charges relating to dog fighting. In the nation’s sports columns, a conventional wisdom has emerged on how to interpret the allegations. The storyline: the lacrosse case is a cautionary tale regarding the need for due process and the dangers of rushing to judgment.
Take a look:
Mark Bradley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Facing a deluge of publicity and an ongoing investigation, a prestigious university shuttered an entire program and fired the coach. Today, Duke’s mishandling of its lacrosse team stands as an object lesson—how not to respond.”
Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “People who already have [Vick] guilty should remember the Duke lacrosse players. Three members of the Duke team were tried and convicted of rape by no less than the upper administration of that university, to say nothing of much of the public, long before the case went to trial. Turns out, there never was a trial. Charges were dropped, but the lives of the players were greatly disrupted and almost ruined by the same rush to judgment that prevails with Vick.”
David Steele, Baltimore Sun: “Neither the NFL nor the Atlanta Falcons should kick out Michael Vick just because of an indictment, and just because he ‘sounds’ guilty. It didn’t happen with Kobe Bryant or Ray Lewis, and as we know now, it shouldn't have happened to the Duke lacrosse players . . . Let’s not forget the key phrase from the breakdown of the Duke case, ‘rush to judgment,’ and hope that there’s no federal prosecutor channeling Michael B. Nifong.”
Adam Schefter, nfl.com: “The league is determined to exercise patience, something Duke did not do when three of its players were indicted and the school cancelled its lacrosse season.”
Dr. Z, Sports Illustrated: “The Duke lacrosse case should have given us a valuable lesson. Don’t be first in line at the necktie party. Don’t assign guilt until it’s proven.”
Kyle Tucker, The Virginian-Pilot: “With the rape case involving falsely accused Duke lacrosse players still fresh, some Vick supporters remind others not to jump to conclusions.”
Peter King, Sports Illustrated: “Rookie commissioner Roger Goodell sent a strong message: This is not going to be the Duke lacrosse case. The NFL is not going to preemptively strike against a player with a relatively clean slate, as Vick has.”
Mike Vacarro, New York Post: “The Duke lacrosse case should have scared us all straight by now, of course. If one good thing emerged from that awfulness in Durham the past year and a half, it should’ve been this: No matter how disgusting the crime, no matter how distasteful the situation, everyone is entitled to their day in court first before anyone prepares a gallows. It’s what our legal system is founded on, a reminder that will serve as Mike Nifong’s lasting parting gift to us.”
The first four items are particularly noteworthy, in that they suggest that Duke’s mishandling of affairs is now widely acknowledged, even by those who didn’t follow the case closely. And, indeed, if ten years from now the lacrosse case is remembered as the best example of why due process matters, this outcome would be appropriate.
Due process means more than a presumption of innocence: the principle also requires prosecutors and police to abide by their own procedures and uphold the Constitution. Perhaps the greatest failure in most early coverage of the lacrosse case (excepting the N&O and the Chronicle) came in the failure to give Nifong’s procedural improprieties appropriate emphasis, and to recognize that due process is impossible when a prosecutor and police routinely break the rules.
To my knowledge, no one—excepting (of all people) Emmitt Smith—has accused Chuck Rosenberg, U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, of inappropriate conduct in the Vick case.
It also would be unfortunate if the media adopted the Herald-Sun’s definition of “due process”—to wit, due process means that all must avoid any comment on criminal justice matters until a jury reaches a verdict, especially in cases where the politically correct course is to avoid comment. This version of “due process,” of course, led the Herald-Sun to castigate those who pointed out that Reade Seligmann—on videotape someplace else at the time of the “crime”—was demonstrably innocent.
There are obvious differences between the Vick and Duke cases. In the Vick case, no one is denying that a crime occurred (authorities uncovered the dead dogs, after all); the government has multiple witnesses (of uncertain credibility); and Vick is a salaried employee of the Falcons. In the lacrosse case, the defense vigorously (and accurately) denied that a crime occurred; the government had one witness (of dubious credibility); and the affected parties were college students paying to attend Duke.
A few sportswriters—ironically, those who wrote or spoke on the lacrosse case as it was occurring—have stressed the differences between the two cases. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times argued that Roger Goodell shouldn’t be “worried about acting like one of those vigilantes who rushed to judgment in the Duke lacrosse rape case . . . A federal indictment is not a small-town rape charge. Vick is being chased by the federal government, not some backwater district attorney. Vick’s alleged crimes were confirmed by four witnesses, not one questionable victim.” MSNBC’s Mike Celizic added, “This isn’t the Duke lacrosse team, so don’t talk about a rush to judgment. With Duke, we were talking about college students who were forced out of school, an entire team that whose season was canceled, more than 20 young men who were smeared by association by a rogue city prosecutor running for reelection.”
Then there are those who seemed to learn nothing from the Duke case. Channeling Allan Gurganus is his contempt for due process, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe opened a recent Vick column with the following lines: “Yes, yes, I know. An indictment is not a conviction. We need to observe due process. I know that, too. However . . .”
Ryan then went on to note, “Lester Munson of ESPN.com is probably the foremost American sports investigative journalist, and he paints a pretty grim picture for Ookie and friends. ‘Vick is in real trouble,’ Munson says, and he goes on from there.”
That would be the same Lester Munson who:
- suggested that Reade Seligmann’s publicizing his alibi would expose him to an obstruction of justice charge;
- claimed that “the whole idea that DNA evidence was somehow conclusive was the invention of the defense lawyers,” despite the motion from Nifong’s office that DNA would exonerate the innocent;
- predicted that, after Nifong dropped the rape charges, people should look for “the accused players to attempt to settle everything with a guilty plea on lesser charges.”
Munson might be many things, but the foremost American sports investigative journalist is not among them.
Hat tips: M.R., D.W.