A year stolen from the lives of the accused. An accuser humiliated and discredited as the world watched. A prosecutor’s career in tatters, an elite university’s reputation tarnished.
As word spread Wednesday that all remaining charges had been dropped against three Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer, there was at least one point beyond dispute: This case was poison for everyone touched by it.
“There are no winners here,” said Larry Pozner, a defense attorney for 33 years and the former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The landscape is littered with ruined reputations. Tell me who won. Certainly not the complaining witness. Not the school. Not the defendant. Not (District Attorney) Mike Nifong.”
The roster of potential winners is thin. The legal system — eventually — kept a flimsy case from going to trial, but not before much damage was done. The city of Durham kept calm, but still was portrayed as a place of sharp racial and class differences.
A long list of losers will be the legacy of the case.
— THE PLAYERS. Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans no longer face the threat of prison time. But returning to their lives of 13 months ago, before the fateful off-campus party, is out of the question.
Evans has graduated while Finnerty and Seligmann, after temporary suspensions, have been invited back to Duke. Finnerty’s father told The Associated Press this week that the last year has been “horrific” for his son, who has been doing volunteer work. He is unlikely to return.
The three come from well-off suburbs — a fact that played heavily into the class aspects of the case. But their families’ legal bills have been estimated as high as $3 million.
And though out of legal jeopardy, the players are unlikely ever to be viewed as entirely innocent victims. To some, they’ll remain the face of a distasteful jock culture at Duke that, at the very least, hired an exotic dancer for an alcohol-fueled off-campus party.
— THE ACCUSER. A college student and single mother working as an exotic dancer, she initially attracted widespread sympathy. But her conflicting stories shattered her credibility. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said Wednesday she may believe the contradictory accounts she has given, and she will not face charges.
“If she can keep herself out of the limelight, she can probably over a period of time regain her ability to live in and among the community,” said Woody Vann, a Durham attorney who once represented the accuser. “People have done worse than this.”
— THE MEDIA. The case had lots of hot-button issues — sex, race, class, sports, an elite university. When it broke, a swarm of reporters and television trucks rushed to Durham and made the city the dateline for a string of sweeping stories about class, race and culture. The players and accuser were viewed less as individuals than as avatars of competing political and cultural agendas.
But the case itself proved far more complicated, and few of the stories grasped that Durham was a more complicated place, too.
There were racial divisions to be sure, but also a civic tradition that kept people there talking — instead of shouting or fighting — throughout.
— DUKE. The elite university was blasted by some for failing to take the rape allegations seriously enough, then for not sticking up more for the players.
Students have moved on, and last year Duke enjoyed record donations and a near-record number of applications. But Duke President Richard Brodhead acknowledged to the AP last month that the university’s reputation with the general public has been harmed. On campus, there have been bitter faculty debates over its response to the incident. The case prompted a series of studies of big issues like the athletic culture on campus, but it’s unclear what will come of them given the faculty divisions.
— FORMER LACROSSE COACH MIKE PRESSLER. After its 2006 season was canceled, Duke’s lacrosse team is back on the field and ranked No. 4 in the country. But former coach Mike Pressler isn’t with them. Pressler had a good reputation around campus for handling the team, and had expressly warned them before spring break last year to behave themselves. But as details of the party and a vulgar e-mail sent by one player after the party emerged, Pressler was forced out. Two goals away from the NCAA title in 2005, he now coaches Division II Bryant College in Rhode Island.
— DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE NIFONG: Before the case, Nifong was a respected lawyer little known outside Durham. Now, he’s on the verge of being disbarred, facing ethics charges from the North Carolina State Bar that accuse him of withholding evidence, lying to a court and making inflammatory comments about the players. Cooper sharply criticized Nifong on Wednesday, indirectly referring to him as a “rogue prosecutor.”
“Why do we have all these ruined reputations?,” said Pozner, of the defense lawyers group. “Because a man with enormous power didn’t take his time and fairly look at the facts.”