When the Duke lacrosse story broke in March of 2006, I was a sportswriter covering the Duke Blue Devils in the third round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Atlanta. I remember climbing up the Georgia Dome stands to reach Duke’s then-Athletic Director Joe Alleva. I asked for his response to allegations that members of the lacrosse team had raped a woman who had been hired to dance at a team party just off campus.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation,” Alleva said. “We’re just going to have to let the legal process work out.”
Alleva’s comment seemed oddly dispassionate given the shock of the charges. That day 46 members of the lacrosse team had gone to the Durham police crime lab to give DNA samples. Shouldn’t Alleva have said something stronger about the players’ behavior or the possible punishment?
He didn’t, and he was right. It was a shame that Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong didn’t also “let the legal process work out.” Instead, he went on a hunch and turned the process inside out, rendering three Duke lacrosse players guilty until proven innocent, which – after much national media attention – they were.
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I recalled Alleva’s early caution last week as N.C. State announced the dismissal of two freshman football players and the suspension of three more freshmen players amid allegations that two women were raped at a July 21 party at one of the players’ on-campus apartment. A third woman has alleged she was the victim of sexual battery.
University officials and Wake County Prosecutor Lorrin Freeman are striving to avoid the pitfalls of the Duke case. They want to be fair to all involved and to properly follow both the criminal investigation process and the steps required for a Title IX review into whether anyone violated the code of student conduct. The whole process is fraught with legal risks, both criminally and in civil lawsuits that often follow the resolution of Title IX cases.
N.C. State administrators and Freeman have done well to emphasize process over emotion or assumption. But caution also has its excesses. It doesn’t seem right that more than a month has passed since the three women alleged the assaults in reports filed with N.C. State University police a day after the party. A long delay raises doubts about the credibility of the allegations but also keeps the accused under the shadow of suspicion. Both sides deserve to know where they stand as soon as possible.
Matters were not helped by withholding for 11 days the announcement of the players’ suspensions and dismissals for violating team rules. And football coach Dave Doeren made it worse by dismissing those actions as secondary to the really important thing – the season opener against South Carolina. He said, “The game’s in 10 days, by the way, those were five guys that aren’t playing.”
Freeman, fortunately, is less cavalier about what’s at stake for the players and the accusers. Since the case presents no immediate threat to public safety and versions of what happened differ, she’s willing to move methodically, especially in light of the Duke lacrosse case.
“Anybody who has been in a prosecutor’s office the last 20 years is well aware of and remembers the situation at Duke University,” Freeman said last week. She added, “Once you charge someone criminally, it’s very hard to un-ring that bell. So we try very hard to be deliberate in making charging decisions in these sorts of cases.”
KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and co-author of the book “The Campus Rape Frenzy,” said the presumption of guilt still pervades many campus rape investigations despite the cautionary tale at Duke. He said 170 lawsuits have been filed by those found guilty in campus proceedings after the Obama administration changed Title IX proceedings in 2011 to better support accusers. The plaintiffs won 58 of those cases and were awarded an average settlement of $187,000, though what plaintiffs want most is to have their records expunged.
“For those who are wrongly accused, there almost is no choice but to sue,” Johnson said. “In any job with a background check this is going to come up. In any Google search this is going to come up. (A campus conviction) is a life-altering decision.”
Johnson said the ideal situation is to closely coordinate the Title IX investigation with a criminal investigation since criminal investigators have more tools to get at the truth. That’s what is happening with the N.C. State case. But a decision needs to come soon.
Johnson notes that a Title IX investigation is expected to conclude within 60 days of the report. He said it would be “a nightmare scenario” if the campus investigation finds the accused guilty, but Freeman decides not to bring charges. “That would guarantee lawsuits against N.C. State,” he said.
Alleva had it right. Freeman does, too. But this careful walk on the legal tightrope is far from over.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com