The Duke Lacrosse Scandal Revisited: Five Years Later

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Robin Barton

On April 18, 2011, Crystal Mangum was indicted for murder in the stabbing death of her boyfriend Reginald Daye. This case isn’t Mangum’s first brush with the law. In 2010, she was convicted of a misdemeanor for setting fire to her house while her three children were inside.

But in Mangum’s most famous—or should I say, infamous—interaction with the criminal justice system, she claimed to be the “victim.”

Mangum, who is black, accused three white lacrosse players from Duke University of raping her at an off-campus party in March 2006, a fact that’s noted in nearly every article on her current legal predicament.

The charges against the players were eventually dropped in April 2007 after an investigation by the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office uncovered prosecutorial misconduct and a lack of evidence to support Mangum’s accusations.

Mike Nifong, the district attorney responsible for the case, resigned and was disbarred. However, Mangum was never charged over the false accusations.

During the 13 months the case was active, the national media ran full tilt with the story. It was covered in newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times; magazines such as Newsweek and Rolling Stone;, blogs and cable news. Even the venerable 60 Minutes did several segments on it.

The consensus now seems to be that much of this coverage represented a rush to judgment of the players and was unfair and unprofessional. (But at least one journalist, Andrew Cohen of the Washington Post, thought the coverage was slanted in favor of the players.)

I won’t rehash all of the mistakes various media entities made in covering what’s often simply referred to as the Duke lacrosse scandal. (The American Journalism Review did a wonderful job of reviewing and analyzing the media feeding frenzy that descended on Duke and the accused players.) But the missteps broadly occurred in two areas: the initial framing of the case and the response to the dropping of the charges.

Everything takes place in a context, which is relevant to understanding the true nature of events. Crime is no different. For example, a man who robbed a store to fund his drug habit is guilty of the same crime as a man who lost his job and so robbed the same store to feed his family.

But because the context of each of these crimes is very different, the media will appropriately cover each differently.

In the case of the Duke lacrosse scandal, the accusations were quickly framed in the context of race, sex and class—three wild, rich white men attending an elite university were accused of preying on a poor black woman. A story as old as time, right?

In this case, it wasn’t actually true.

However, this hook was so attractive and played into so many public beliefs and stereotypes that many journalists forgot about the presumption of innocence, failed to objectively evaluate the “facts,” and just ran with that angle.

Even as it became clear that there were serious problems with the prosecution’s case—for example, there was no DNA evidence tying any of the Duke players to Mangum, and the other stripper who was with her at the party called the rape claim “a crock”—many reporters refused to let go of the assumption that the players were guilty.

And once the charges were officially dropped, they reported it with a lot less enthusiasm than their coverage of the original accusations—if they covered it at all.

There were some exceptions. For example, New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, who’d originally condemned the Duke players, later called the case a “witch hunt” and concluded that “maybe the saddest part of the whole reaction is not the rush to judgment at the start, but the unwillingness by so many to face the truth now that the more complicated reality has emerged.”

One journalist went even further and issued an apology to the Duke players.

Ruth Sheehan of the Raleigh News & Observer had been an outspoken critic of the players, condemning them for their initial silence in the face of the charges and calling for the firing of the lacrosse team’s coach. She’d written 14 columns on the case.

But after the charges were dropped, her final column on it began, “Members of the men’s Duke lacrosse team: I am sorry.” Sheehan went on the acknowledge her errors and promised to do better in the future.

Where did the media go wrong?

In large part, journalists got caught up in the public outrage over Mangum’s claims. So reporters blindly trusted the information from the prosecutor’s office without objectively analyzing it. In contrast, they dismissed information and claims from the defense attorneys.

And they relied on and played into stereotypes.

What should journalists have done in covering that case? In the American Journalism Review’s piece on media coverage of the Duke scandal, Rachel Smolkin correctly asserts that reporters should have stayed true to journalism’s most basic tenets: “Be fair; stick to the facts; question authorities; don’t assume; pay attention to alternative explanations.”

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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