Book review: 'The Price of Silence' only tells one side of Duke lacrosse scandal

jneff@newsobserver.comApril 19, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities

    William D. Cohan

    Scribner, 653 pages

The Duke lacrosse case was a spectacular scandal – a cause célèbre that had the country abuzz about race, class and gender. Three wealthy Duke students, all of them white, were charged with raping a poor black woman during a spring break party at a scruffy rental house in Durham.

Then the whole mess imploded in real time, in the national media, due to prosecutorial misconduct.

North Carolina, of all places in America, was perhaps the most fertile soil for a case that ended with the state attorney general declaring the three players innocent and state regulators disbarring the prosecutor, Mike Nifong.

In the years before “Nifong” became a synonym for railroading, North Carolina had witnessed several death-penalty cases in which prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence. The legislature responded with an open file discovery law requiring prosecutors to share their entire file. In two cases, the N.C. State Bar had botched disciplinary proceedings against the prosecutors. The resulting uproar led to serious changes in how the bar conducted high-profile discipline cases.

In the lacrosse case, Nifong faced the very defense lawyers who opened the prosecution files and forced changes at the bar.

You won’t find this history in “The Price of Silence.” Instead, author William D. Cohan opts for an apology for Nifong and, by extension, prosecutors who hide evidence and lie to judges.

The 653-page book mostly rehashes previous reporting. What is new is Nifong speaking for the first time about the case. Nifong makes remarkable claims that the author – clearly sympathetic, if not besotted – fails to challenge or test.

Nifong claims the prosecutor who took over the case was “sandbagged” when the attorney general later declared the players innocent; Cohan could have proven that claim false had he tried to interview the prosecutor, garrulous and blunt-speaking Jim Coman, who was adamant about declaring the players innocent.

Nifong claims he’s pretty sure he never told told his campaign manager that the national headlines were millions of dollars of free advertisement. Cohan never contacted the campaign manager, the very accessible Jackie Brown.

Nifong claims the State Bar’s disciplinary committee chairman concluded he was guilty before Nifong ever testified. Cohan never tried to talk with Lane Williamson, the chairman.

Nifong claimed the judge who jailed him for a day had told friends beforehand that he planned on convicting Nifong of contempt of court. Cohan made no attempt to interview Judge W. Osmond Smith.

These would be pathetic mistakes for a daily newspaper story. For an author spending months or years on a book, it’s a revealing choice to avoid interviews that contradict the revisionist narrative: that Nifong is the victim.

Cohan declares the charge that Nifong withheld exculpatory evidence a “red herring.” Let’s review that. Nifong repeatedly told judges he had produced all the DNA evidence. He hadn’t: He and a lab director conspired not to report rape kit test results showing that the accuser had DNA from four unknown men. The tests were sensitive enough to register a wisp of DNA from the lab director, and yet the rape kit produced not a single particle of DNA from those accused of a brutal gang rape.

Under a judge’s order, Nifong produced 1,800 pages of laboratory hieroglyphics. One lawyer had the sitzfleisch to decode the hieroglyphics and discover the unreported test results. Under oath, the lab director confessed to the conspiracy to hide test results.

Nifong’s most extraordinary claim: The lacrosse team is to blame for the scandal by exercising their constitutional right to legal counsel before giving DNA samples to the police. This is a frightening claim from a former district attorney, a position with more power over individuals than virtually any other public office.

Joseph Neff covered the Duke lacrosse case for The News & Observer.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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