A disquieting reality

April 16, 2007

David Evans and James Curtis Giles don't know each other. But their personal nightmares hinged on the very same thing - an accusation of gang rape. Their nightmares ended last week in two different cities, each man affirmed in his innocence and wronged by a miscarriage of justice. Race, class and money were at play in their individual cases, powerful forces that can free or imprison the truth.

Last year, Mr. Evans and two other Duke University lacrosse players, all white, were charged with sexually assaulting a black dancer at a team party. The North Carolina attorney general dropped the charges against the players last week and took the unusual step of declaring them innocent, citing a lack of evidence and rogue conduct by the district attorney. In their first public comments, the young athletes recognized the role their family wealth played in proving their innocence - to the tune of a $5 million legal effort before trial - and raised concerns for those of lesser means who are falsely charged.

It was a bittersweet life lesson for these young men of privilege and a condemnation of a criminal justice system so easily manipulated. The Duke case was a textbook example of how a misguided prosecutor, a distortion of facts and illegal behavior can pervert justice. It reaffirmed most powerfully the underlying precept of our justice system - innocent until proved guilty - and the importance of competent lawyers with the means to mount a credible defense, which so many poor and minority defendants across this country lack.

DNA testing has proved to be the great leveler. Yet in the Duke case, DNA evidence from the victim that didn't match the players failed to immediately clear them because the prosecutor tried to bury it.

For Mr. Giles, DNA evidence confirmed his innocence, 25 years after he was convicted of a gang rape in Dallas and served 10 years in prison. At the time, he was a construction worker on probation and a victim of mistaken identity, an error compounded by egregious behavior - prosecutors kept from his trial lawyer information about another black man named James Giles who lived near the white victim. It took an independently funded team of public interest lawyers to prove his wrongful conviction.

The cases of black men with criminal records and little money to properly defend themselves are routine in the annals of the wrongly convicted.

The case of the Duke lacrosse players wasn't routine by any measure - except in its portrait of a criminal justice system that is fallible, susceptible to abuse and slow to self-correct without a well-financed defense.

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