Two issues in the news over the past week have brought to mind lessons of the lacrosse case.
The first, of course, came at Hofstra, where a freshman student named Danmell Ndonye falsely accused five men of raping her. Four of the men were arrested, solely on the basis of Ndonye’s claims; the only one of the four who was a Hofstra student was immediately suspended by the university.
The falsely accused men were saved by technology: one of them had recorded the episode with his cell-phone camera, thereby proving that Ndonye was lying. One of the suspects admitted, “It didn't look good for us. I thought we would do time.” Imagine this case without the existence of a cell-phone video capability—or the lacrosse case without cell-phone camera (which established a timeline), cell-phone triangulation technology (which showed Collin Finnerty wasn’t at the house when the “crime” allegedly occurred), or bank ATM videos (which showed Reade Seligmann wasn’t at the house when the “crime” allegedly occurred).
Sadly, this case seems to offer a lesson for those intent on self-protection under Duke’s new, draconian sexual assault code. Since the code requires evidence of consent at each stage of the intercourse process (“Conduct will be considered ‘without consent’ if no clear consent, verbal or nonverbal, is given”), and since even if consent is given a student can nonetheless be found guilty (“Real or perceived power differentials between individuals may create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion” [emphases added]), a written contract indicating consent at each stage of the process could be challenged (on the grounds that it was “unintentionally” “coercive”). Of course, videotaping acts of intercourse is—to put it mildly—in terrible taste. But as long as Duke’s code maintains its current wording, there would seem to be little alternative.
On another front: the New York Times covered the accuser’s recantation in an article penned by Anahad O’Connor. O’Connor’s article shielded Ndonye’s name, yet included the names and ages of the four men she falsely accused. Even assuming that a rationale exists for shielding the names of false accusers (which is quite a stretch in and of itself), what possible rationale could exist for not reporting the name of the false accuser while simultaneously reporting the names of the people she falsely accused? I e-mailed O’Connor for comment, but have not received a reply; if I do, I will post it.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the murder of a Yale graduate student, the New Republic reminded us of the fate of James Van de Velde, the Yale lecturer deemed a suspect (but never accused, and almost certainly innocent) in the 1998 murder of Suzanne Jovin.
Van de Velde, who had been a popular lecturer (whose courses dealt with more “traditional” topics out of favor with the then-dean of faculty, Richard Brodhead). Van de Velde had been questioned by police, but had not received any media attention—until the day before spring term 1999 classes, when he received a letter from Brodhead informing him that he would be removed from the classroom for the pending term.
Here is how James Bennet, writing in the New York Times Magazine, described the next day’s events:
The next day, students showed up for one of Van de Velde's classes to find a terse notice of its cancellation on the blackboard. In a statement, Yale noted that it presumed Van de Velde innocent, but that the New Haven Police had informed the University that he was "in a pool of suspects in the murder. "Under these circumstances," it continued, "it is inevitable that his classroom presence would be accompanied by continuing speculation about events outside the classroom that would constitute a major distraction for students and impair their educational experience."
The police confirmed Yale's statement, and for the media this was a bugler's call. Van de Velde's telephone and doorbell rang, he said, from 6:30 in the morning until 11 at night. He took to sleeping on a friend's floor.
Brodhead assured Bennet that he believed “the presumption of innocence is not a trivial thing.”