How the justice game is played in America
Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong's last case is the talk of the town hall cafeteria but where's the Washington Post?
BARBARA AMIEL | Feb 05, 2007
I never played lacrosse. The closest I got was field hockey. The players were amazons, the ball a lethal missile and the curved stick a menace. I preferred tennis.
So when three players from North Carolina's Duke University lacrosse team were arrested last spring for the rape of the part-time stripper hired to dance at a team house party, I had only the haziest notion of the game. One assumed that it was another of those American sports featuring oversized men wearing exiguous costumes to show off huge thighs and muscular bottoms. And yes, I vaguely assumed the players would be black, as many top American athletes are, with rape charges being something of an occupational hazard. Turned out they were white and the part-time stripper black.
I went down to see the lacrosse at Toronto's Air Canada Centre last weekend just to get a feel: Rochester Hawks versus the Toronto Rock. They play a version of lacrosse for hockey arenas rather than open fields. While actual assault is penalized, the key seems to be to hit the player in possession as hard as possible with the lacrosse stick. Still, unlike ice hockey, there was barely a single brawl during the game, and no gang-ups. Only an impressive display of scooping up a hard rubber ball whizzing by at fantastic speeds. The entire game was played to the non-stop sound on loudspeakers of '70s and '80s rock music. This must be the only professional sport accompanied by early Twisted Sister and Iron Maiden.
Everyone I saw that evening was white. I mean even the most determinedly colour-blind cannot not see this. Among the entire 16,900 spectators and the two teams, only the working chaps behind the fast-food counters and the ushers were black, except for the one father I saw with his three children and white wife. Given that the game was invented by Canada's First Nations 400 years ago, which may account for the ferocity of a sport in which coming out alive seems to me a triumph, you'd think the audience would at least include some visible Mohawks.
The spectators are youngish. Blue-collar, executives or students, it's hard to tell -- on a very cold night at an arena all Canadians are puffed penguins in parkas. A polite crowd, too, even if some of them seemed rather strange in orange fright wigs. "Why are you wearing those wigs?" "Don't know," replied the people I asked. "They were giving them out." This can't be fairly used as an indicator of the crowd's IQ, given that the desire to wear an orange fright wig must in itself be a streaming factor.
The IQs of Duke's lacrosse players seem perfectly decent. In fact, a faculty committee headed by law professor James E. Coleman in the wake of the rape charges discovered that Duke's lacrosse teams have a 100 per cent graduation record, and, between 2001 and 2005, 146 members of the team made the Atlantic Coast Conference's Academic Honor Roll. Some have a record of heavy drinking, but show me an athletic male university student who abstains and I'll bet he also crochets. According to David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, the report cites almost universal admiration from people who come into contact with the team.
Which makes the charges against Duke's players all the weirder. Are the three athletes just aberrant bad seeds who actually did use a broom to sexually assault one of the two strippers hired(the other one claims nothing bad happened)as well as raping her? And if this did not happen, as it now appears, why did Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong charge the players months before he interviewed the stripper who made the complaint? Why did he insist on continuing the case when the accuser kept changing her story, when the DNA evidence was not consistent with her account, and when her identification of the men varied?
Received wisdom -- likely true -- is that he was in a contested Democratic primary for DA when this case plopped down like manna and he went after the big black vote in Durham. "The contempt shown for the victim based on her race was totally abhorrent," said Nifong before winning -- and before questioning the abhorred victim. This month, under pressure, he recused himself. The North Carolina bar has filed an ethics complaint against him and a special prosecutor has taken over.
Apart from political motives, you can see how this might happen. Here is a district attorney who has spent nearly 30 years as a prosecutor, squeezing out plea bargains and convictions. He's seen Marcia Clark or Rudolph Giuliani doing exactly what he does but getting all that national attention. His last case is the talk of the town hall cafeteria and the wife thinks him Eliot Ness, but the Durham Herald-Sun is not the Washington Post and Court TV radio coverage isn't CBS.
Then comes the stripper and the white boys. Fox News is on the line, the New York Times is panting and your secretary can't cope with media calls. So what if the medical evidence is not consistent with your statement that the victim was beaten, kicked, strangled and raped? Are you going to let a little thing like the facts make you say "no" to CNN? Just because she changes her story, must you skip The Abrams Report? C'mon. By his own account, Nifong did more than 50 interviews in one week.
If this were one case in a million, Americans could rest easy. Given my personal experience, I'd say it was the one case in a million where prosecutorial iniquities came to light. American justice? It's only a TV show. At best, unlike television, look for justice in the jury box, not the prosecutor's office.
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