As had been widely anticipated, North Carolina Attorney General Roy A. Cooper announced Wednesday afternoon that all remaining charges against three former Duke lacrosse players accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting an exotic dancer have been dropped, saying an investigation “showed clearly that there is insufficient evidence to proceed.” He added, “We believe these individuals are innocent.”
It has been a long, strange trip to reach this resolution. Back in March of last year, the accuser, who was hired to strip at an off-campus party for lacrosse players, claimed that she was gang-raped and assaulted in the bathroom at the party. Durham D.A. Mike Nifong repeatedly expressed confidence that the accusations were credible and the accused players were guilty, though gradually information emerged showing that the investigation was riddled with police and prosecutorial misconduct. After the accuser contradicted herself in testimony and admitted that she couldn’t remember whether she was actually penetrated by a penis during the alleged attack, the charges of rape were dropped in December.
D.A. Nifong wound up facing ethics charges from the North Carolina bar; earlier this year, he asked that the state attorney general take over the case. From this vantage point, it’s clear that his handling of the case was slapdash and self-interested at best; quite possibly it was also exploitative and corrupt. Upcoming bar hearings could shed more light on his conduct. Whatever the hearings reveal, the fact remains that the prosecution didn’t have a solid case against the accused players, and put them through an inordinate and unfair amount of humiliation in its meandering process to reach that conclusion.
The case has proved to be a litmus test for individual feelings about rape cases. Some spectators were quick to discount the accusations and call the accuser a lying whore; others automatically offered her support and the benefit of the doubt. Neither camp really knew what went on at the ill-fated party, because it’s impossible for anyone other than those present to know for sure. But the 13-month media circus surrounding the Duke case didn’t help matters. Many news outlets — including, in some instances, Broadsheet — were quick to side with the accuser. On the flip side, there are also ample examples of media coverage firmly in the other camp. Beyond Tucker Carlson’s predictable tirade, there was musing about lacrosstitutes and some egregious blame-the-victim coverage. Reasonable arguments about presumed innocence sometimes wandered into less reasonable arguments that certain women are asking for rape, or that accusers should be silenced because they might be lying.
The polarized responses to the case dredge up a peculiar tension regarding rape allegations: It’s critical that the accused are presumed innocent, but it’s also important that accusers are offered support and the assurance that someone believes them; that’s a key part of post-assault counseling. These priorities aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive — supporting an accuser isn’t the same as convicting an alleged perpetrator, and ultimately we’d like to believe that even in cases of conflicting reports the truth will come out.
It’s true that false accusations happen; worse still, false convictions happen. At the same time, sexual assault is an underreported crime. As a savvy reader noted in response to an earlier post about the dropped charges, future rape survivors may be unintended victims in this case. Those who see every rape charge as a probable false accusation may read the Duke case outcome as validating their position; assault survivors may worry that the Duke case outcome erodes their credibility.
Ultimately, the right thing happened in the Duke case; it took far too long, but we’re extremely glad that, at long last, a credible authority reviewed the evidence and exonerated the accused players. But in the end, the royally botched case is a big no win for everyone involved. Going forward, we’re hoping this unusual, unfortunate case won’t become a cultural touchstone for future rape allegations — but we’re not terribly optimistic.