- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

It’s hard to say which is unraveling faster: the sexual assault case against three former Duke University lacrosse players or the public’s interest in it. Too many facts can ruin a good story for folks who already have made up their minds.

Some people think the Duke players should be prosecuted “whether it happened or not,” as a student at North Carolina Central University, the mostly black college where the alleged victim is enrolled, told Newsweek a few weeks after the March incident. “It would be justice for things that happened in the past.”

No, it wouldn’t. If anything, it would be racial reparations run amok and morphed into mob justice.

But letting suspects off too easy would be unfair to the victim. The process has to play out, even if it is more complicated and therefore less satisfying than the easy good-versus-evil stories we would rather see.

As with earlier media-fueled eruptions over race, sex, politics, celebrity and class privilege, the Duke case in many minds is not about facts but feelings. It is not about the accused lacrosse players or the accusing woman. It is about the personal pain this drama represents to the rest of us.

As a feast of familiar stereotypes, the Duke story has it all: Rich white boys allegedly gone wild; a struggling single black mom and college students who reportedly turned to stripping to make ends meet; an outspoken white prosecutor who needs black votes in a tough re-election bid, and, to help even up the odds, a publicity-savvy “dream team” for the defense.

After promising black voters he would not let the Duke case drop against the players he called “hooligans,” Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong indicted two of the players two weeks before the election. He narrowly won the three-way race, taking a larger share of the black vote than the only other white candidate did.

But just before Christmas, the accuser said she could not say for sure whether she was raped and Mr. Nifong threw out the rape charges. Yet, Mr. Nifong left charges of sexual assault and kidnapping pending against the three defendants.

So much for Mr. Nifong’s declarations on MSNBC in March: “I am convinced that there was a rape, yes, sir.” He also cited an emergency-room nurse’s report to a local radio station that indicated “some type of sexual assault did in fact take place.” That was before DNA tests failed to match any of the Duke players.

As Mr. Nifong’s case fizzles like an untied balloon, he begins to resemble the worst descriptions of President Bush’s Iraq policy: stuck with a lost cause and not much of an exit strategy, yet refusing to pull out.

Meanwhile, Duke President Richard Brodhead has invited the two players suspended (one already graduated) back to school. Mr. Brodhead also has called for the district attorney to step aside and give control to an independent party “who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process.” That’s asking a lot.

One can only imagine how everyone would feel right about now if, for example, the 2003 rape case against Kobe Bryant was falling apart in the way the air is rushing out of Mr. Nifong’s case. Mr. Bryant was spared further suspense. During jury selection, his accuser decided not to testify and, after closed-door meetings between lawyers, the judge dismissed the case. Mr. Bryant denied that she was paid off, which did little to stop tongues from wagging anyway.

And giving us all something to talk and think about is what makes the big news dramas like the Kobe and Duke cases exciting. We apply our feelings and ideas to individuals we don’t really know. Lost in the furor are the real people who have to live with the aftermath.

Yet, however the Duke case plays out, it already offers some valuable lessons about rushing to judgment. Mr. Nifong’s questionable statements and actions should remind law-and-order hardliners that prosecutors are not always right.

Our long history of injustices has made black Americans like me particularly sensitive to the rights of the accused black, but we also can’t forget the rights of suspects who are not black. After all, if institutional racism still holds any power at all, then rights that are denied to whites today can just as easily be denied to blacks tomorrow.

And, while the Duke accuser’s media image doesn’t look as sympathetic these days as it used to, she, too, has rights. We can still feel for her. What we still do not know are all the facts.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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