Accused Duke players go on "60 Minutes"

Is CBS righting the wrong of biased coverage, or helping the defense?

Published October 16, 2006 9:24PM (EDT)

Ed Bradley's "60 Minutes" interview with the three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape has made a big splash, giving rise to morning-after recap on CBS and ample attention from news agencies from the Associated Press to Bradley interviewed the three accused players and the second exotic dancer from the now-infamous off-campus party, flagging important facts like the improper lineup procedures police used to help the accuser identify her alleged attackers, the lacrosse team's full cooperation with the police investigation, and accused player Reade Seligmann's seemingly ironclad alibi. The piece also introduced a few pieces of new information, like the fact that dancer Kim Roberts disputes the accuser's claim that lacrosse players forcibly separated the two dancers before the alleged rape, and the fact that the accuser continued working as an exotic dancer in the weeks after the incident.

As we've noted before, the Duke case has been dogged by police and prosecutorial misconduct, and early media reports, including Broadsheet's, were often too credulous of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong's assurances that the players were guilty. Since then, evidence has accumulated that makes the case seem ambiguous at best, and possibly even corrupt. The "60 Minutes" piece didn't unearth much more evidence than the New York Times laid out in August, but it did a good job of presenting the problems of the case for those who haven't been following the sporadic print coverage in the past few months.

But the Bradley interview packs a bigger punch not just because the accused players were being interviewed for the first time, but because it was on the highly rated "60 Minutes," which told millions of viewers that the particulars of the case raise "serious concerns about whether or not a rape even occurred." Accused players Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans didn't say much that their lawyers haven't said before, but they said it in person; Roberts had previously called the allegations "a crock" and then told NPR that a rape "could have happened," but seemed genuinely skeptical of the accuser's claims when talking to Bradley. The egregious law-enforcement and prosecutor screw-ups combined with the players' and Roberts' interviews to portray a miscarriage of justice -- and since neither the accuser, Nifong nor anyone else who might substantiate the allegations against the players participated in the interview, that's the side we see.

Maybe that's the only side there is. Maybe the accuser is an opportunistic fabulist and Nifong is an opportunistic media manipulator. Certainly the rigged police lineup seems unforgivably unfair; certainly Nifong acted inappropriately when he bragged about the players' guilt; certainly the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence that, at least in the court of public opinion, they didn't get. But as the media reflects on these errors, there's the danger that the pendulum will simply swing the other way. First, the players were definitely guilty; now, they have been tried by the court of CBS and are definitely innocent! There are inconsistencies in the accuser's story, so she's definitely lying about all of it! Such a volte-face might sound extreme, but there are plenty of people drawing those conclusions today.

From a fairness perspective, it may seem only reasonable that the public-opinion pendulum would swing to the other side. But from the perspective of the trial scheduled for this spring, the "60 Minutes" interview is potentially more about strategy than about setting the record straight. On "The Early Show" today, CBS legal news analyst Mickey Sherman said that having the players go on "60 Minutes" was "a great idea," and that police and prosecutor improprieties might be enough to get the case thrown out. ABC News reported today that the accuser's cousin is claiming that the defense used the "60 Minutes" interview to put pressure on the accuser to abandon the case. That may or may not be true -- the accuser's cousin is hardly an unbiased party, but tactical maneuvering of the kind she's talking about isn't unheard of. But the speculation on both sides highlights the extent to which this case is being tried before it reaches a courtroom. This is too bad, because if ever a case could use the sober judgment of an unbiased judge and jury, it's this one.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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