John Smallwood | Yes, Rutgers players were hurt, but Duke lacrosse trio nearly destroyed

Posted: April 12, 2007

"A TRAGIC RUSH to accuse" by an overreaching district attorney.

That was the excuse that North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper gave for the 395-day nightmare that David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty have gone through.

In announcing yesterday that all charges had been dropped against the three former Duke lacrosse players, who had been accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer, Cooper blasted Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, whose mishandling of the case has landed him in front of an ethics board.

Frankly, Nifong, who has been accused of withholding evidence and lying to the court and bar investigators, shouldn't only be disbarred if this is true; he should face criminal charges.

And Crystal Gail Mangum, the woman who is still being referred to as "the accuser" because of many media agencies' policy of not naming victims in sexual-assault cases, isn't a victim at all

She lied.

For reasons known only to her, Mangum accused three innocent young men of a heinous crime.

I guess Cooper has a good reason for announcing that the state won't file charges against Mangum, but I'm not sure I see them.

Radio personality Don Imus is rightfully being blasted for his despicable on-air comment of calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."

As personally damaging as that was to the Rutgers players and their families, it is a tempest in a teapot compared to what happened to the Duke players.

These kids had their lives put on the line. They were facing serious jail time. They were branded as rapists. Their families have reportedly run up millions of dollars in legal fees.

All because Nifong, whom Cooper described as a "rogue prosecutor," decided to play hanky-panky with the greatest legal system in the world.

Our system is not flawless, but it is good. Unfortunately it is only as good as the people operating it.

If Nifong abused it in the manner described, he committed a crime against all of us.

He deliberately undermined the confidence we must have to trust our system of justice.

If the people who are charged with upholding our system are allowed to manipulate the rules without penalty, we have no true justice system.

"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado," Cooper said. "In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly."

A lot of people lost track of clarity - many of them in my profession.

From the day the accusations were made until yesterday, I wrote just one column about the Duke case. It had nothing to do with the accused, the accuser or the case. I said it would be a bad public-relations decision for Duke to let its women's lacrosse players wear armbands saying "Not Guilty" during their Final Four.

Stories like this can easily take on lives of their own - ones that have little to do with the original story.

Leaks from unnamed sources, snippets of information with no context, quotes from so-called experts who don't really know the particulars of the case - these can create a circus atmosphere in which the search for the truth gets trampled under a stampede of sensationalism.

Personally, I was content to withhold judgment or opinion until the facts became clearer.

If I've learned nothing else in my 41 years on this planet, it's that race, sex and crime in America are a volatile mix that can easily explode, causing all sorts of collateral damage.

It's an easy sell but an extremely dangerous one.

From the beginning we heard that the accuser wouldn't receive justice because she was African-American at the same time as we heard that the accused couldn't get justice because they were white.

Opportunists, on both sides of the racial fence, used the case to advance their agendas with little or no concern about finding the truth one way or another.

Quickly, the real story - whether or not this particular woman was raped by these particular men - became irrelevant, lost in the hoopla of race-based agendas from all directions.

Duke University's historically strained relationship with the predominantly African-American community of Durham, N.C., had nothing to do with the incident, yet it quickly became the crux of the story line.

Even today, there will be some people on one side who will say that Evans, Seligmann and Finnerty got off only because they are wealthy white kids and the victim was black, while others will say that it went as far as it did for the same reasons.

The plain truth is that a woman lied, a prosecutor forgot that his job was to seek the truth and not convict at all costs, and our society's affinity to still see things in black and white put three innocent kids through a year of hell.

The sad thing is that it's just a set of circumstances away from happening all over again. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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