Posted on July 23, 2008

Until Proven Innocent

George C. Leef, The Freeman, May 2008

Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson. Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. 405 pages; $26.95

In an infamous 1931 case, several black youths were arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white women. Those young men — eventually called the Scottsboro Boys — could have been executed for the crime. Newspapers throughout the south wrote about the case as if the defendants’ innocence was inconceivable. It perfectly fit the reigning stereotypes — white women were virtuous and black men were vicious sexual predators.

As it turned out, the accusers had lied. The women were sure they could play on the prejudices of law-enforcement officials to cover up their own indiscretions, so they made up a story. Good work by dedicated defense attorneys ripped apart the prosecution’s case and the defendants were freed.

The Duke lacrosse case of 2006 — 07 mirrored the Scottsboro incident. A black woman, Crystal Mangum, hired as a stripper (almost always referred to in the media as an “exotic dancer”) at a party thrown by the captains of the Duke University lacrosse team, showed up so drunk that she passed out after just a few minutes. Later, to avoid possible legal consequences from her drunkenness — she had two young children — she told a nurse that she had been raped at the party. The nurse, eager to credit the story, said that some of Crystal’s injuries were consistent with rape.

After that, the case grew like a wildly malignant cancer. A police official with an animosity toward Duke students got his hooks into the case and drove it relentlessly, but never with any interest in finding out what actually occurred. Then the district attorney, Mike Nifong, a white man who desperately wanted to win favor with the predominantly black electorate in Durham, seized on the case as his salvation. He never bothered to investigate the accuser’s veracity — she told several different and inconsistent versions of the alleged crime — but instead took to calling her “my victim.” Flagrantly violating prosecutorial rules, he rushed to indict three Duke lacrosse players.

The media had a field day with the case. Story after story in papers ranging from the New York Times to the Durham Herald-Sun excoriated the accused players with ideologically tendentious pieces that presumed not just guilt but racism. Yet that was nothing compared to the academic left on campus — Duke’s and many others. To leftist professors, the case seemed to be the perfect validation of their worldview that America’s evils stem from oppression on the basis of race, gender, and class. Their speeches and articles seethed with righteous indignation over the alleged crime.

Until Proven Innocent is a thorough recounting of the case by veteran political columnist Stuart Taylor and Brooklyn College history professor KC (Robert) Johnson. In exasperating detail we learn about the shoddy police work and abuses of prosecutorial power by DA Nifong. By the time Taylor and Johnson reach the climax of the story — Nifong’s disbarment and removal from office — readers will yearn for condign justice to be meted out to the many villains of the piece.

Alas, there was no justice for the Duke officials who went along with the lynch mob, nor for the professors who eagerly pronounced guilt and demanded punishment of students who had committed no crime at all. The authors make it clear that in the minds of many of those academics, the concept of guilt has little to do with individual conduct. White male students from well-to-do families are necessarily complicit in the whole oppressive, exploitative class structure of America, so punishing some of them is good, whether or not they actually committed any crime.

One big lesson from the book is how poorly our justice system works. Police and prosecutors often have their own agendas and will obliterate the truth if it suits them. Perhaps the fact that the vicious Nifong has been disbarred and branded as a criminal himself for lying in court will cause prosecutors to think twice before trying to railroad defendants into prison just to make themselves look good. But maybe they’ll think it was just a fluke that he got caught.

The other big lesson is that many university professors who incessantly proclaim their dedication to “social justice” don’t care a whit about true justice. Even after the case unraveled as a hoax, many of them continued to defend their previous statements, claiming that “the narrative” about how dominant classes oppress the subservient classes must remain vital.

What the case demonstrates, however, is that injustice doesn’t fall along the lines of race, class, and gender. It falls along different lines — those who wield coercive power and those who don’t. Thus the book not only tells a crucial story, but also supports the libertarian critique of modern society.