At Duke, the lack of caution serves as a cautionary tale

April 12, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

That was some lesson in justice we've just been taught down in Durham, N.C.

The lesson: At any place, at any time, against anybody, justice can go undone if it's entrusted in the wrong hands. And, just as quickly, injustice can be done.

That doesn't just apply to the Duke lacrosse players for whom charges in last March's "incident" (legally, that's all anyone can call it now) with a stripper at their off-campus house were dropped yesterday. Nobody comes out squeaky clean on this, and that includes those players, who might want to hold off on the gloating for a second.

No matter which side you lined up behind, you should feel sick today. It would take some real scrutiny of this situation and of yourself to be sure exactly what should make you sick. But let the words of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper guide you:

"There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado."

Cooper was referring specifically to now-disgraced Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong, who appears to have blatantly abused the authority and responsibility of his office and took everybody along on the ride with him.

But it applies to everybody. From the moment the young leaders of tomorrow on the Duke team dialed up the stripper to the moment the case Nifong had supposedly built was discovered to be completely empty, poor judgment ruled every action and reaction.

Including my own. To answer a routinely asked question over the past 14 months, no, no one was ever "convicted" in this space, and you can check the archives to prove it. But I did suspect that any prosecutor willing to put his name behind accusations, and later charges, against those players, with all the power and influence at his command, with gender, race and class conflicts aflame all around him and with the eyes and ears of the world trained on him, had to have a warehouse full of evidence to back him up. Right?

Wrong. All Nifong had up his sleeve was his arm.

It was a terrible leap in logic, for lots of people. In this case, it was bad enough to now remove any hint of trust in any aspect of the legal system. Not that there was much there in the first place.

And that, of course, was the basis of much of the heated reaction: the deep-down belief that the Duke players were going to get off because of who they were, and because of who the accuser was.

They did get off. Little did anyone suspect that it would be because of the same short-sightedness and wrongheadedness that created that widespread lack of trust among those who regularly are victimized by it. And largely because the accuser, vilified early and often by Duke supporters as, at best, unreliable, turned out to be exactly that - exactly the wrong person for someone like Nifong to base his name-calling and pot-stirring on.

It brings no relief at all to know that unjust and unfair prosecution cuts not just both ways, but all ways.

Check that. It appears to have brought some relief to one of the accused players, Reade Seligmann: "This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice."

Well, hallelujah.

Before they declare themselves the spiritual heirs of Nelson Mandela, there is this: What was uncovered in the aftermath of the incident clearly needed addressing. The lengthy arrest records, an assault conviction against one of the players eventually charged, the grisly e-mail, the general tone of condescension shown to everybody on campus, the collective stonewalling of the police in their initial investigation, and the other hazy speculation about what exactly took place in that house, all of it.

Seligmann's innocently naive remark unwittingly illustrated the disconnect that emerged between campus and city, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, athlete and non-athlete. A change in the culture was necessary.

There are any number of ways to accomplish all of that. Not a single one of them should ever involve arresting people for a crime they didn't commit. To even imply that this was the silver lining in the controversy is horrendous.

You can debate forever whether canceling the season and forcing out the coach was proper in any context, but today it looks almost criminally premature. Duke administration and athletic officials come off looking as poorly qualified for the job at hand as Nifong does. They're supposed to be the reasonable, responsible leaders. The state attorney general's observation about caution and bravado fits here, too.

In fact, it's hard to find anyone who didn't come through this without a taint. We're all human, the athletes, prosecutors, accusers, administrators, supporters, media, everybody. But that doesn't excuse the headstrong, headlong actions by anyone involved.

It all began with a disturbing display of deficient character by young people - the accuser and the accused - who generally should know better. That doesn't mean everybody was compelled to follow that same path.

When caution faced bravado, caution never stood a chance.

Neither did justice.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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