Column: Duke lacrosse debacle gives us a new verb

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 28, 2006

By Kathleen Parker

Washington Post Writers Group

Given recent events in Durham concerning the alleged Duke University lacrosse “rape” case, it is now possible to declare parody dead.

How does one parody a parody?

All is not lost, however. We can celebrate the addition of a new verb to our American lexicon — “to Nifong.” When the moment calls for activities that need no elaboration, we already “Bobbitt,” “Bork” and “Lewinsky.”

Now we can “Nifong” someone when we want to trump up criminal charges based on flimsy evidence allegedly for political purposes. In short, when we want to screw up someone’s life.

“Nifong” would be as in Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who earlier this year brought charges against three lacrosse players — Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans — for the alleged rape of an African-American stripper who had been hired to perform at a team party.

Last week, Nifong dropped the rape charges when the alleged victim decided she wasn’t sure she had been raped after all. That is, she wasn’t sure she had been vaginally penetrated, a distinction required by state law for a charge of rape.

Last March, after the party, the stripper had a different recollection, telling police that she had been raped every which way. But, well, these things are difficult sometimes to keep straight. Rape being so nuanced and all.

Meanwhile, hundreds of lives have been turned inside out, none so much as the three accused players. All because, well, let’s see, because the stripper said so. The absence of corroborating evidence seemed to pose no obstacle for Nifong, who ran a successful re-election campaign on the strength of his convictions.

And, of course, the story had good legs and plenty of sex appeal, if you like that sort of thing: race and class conflict, town and gown tensions, rich-white-boys vs. poor-black-working-mother, underage drinking and the aura of privilege. The world hungered for such a fable, and Nifong fed the beast.

As it turns out, Nifong’s case was something less than a slam dunk, and he must have known it. As was recently revealed, Nifong not only knew that lab tests showed no traces of DNA from any of the lacrosse team players, he knew that they did show DNA traces from several unknown other men.

Yet, Nifong and the head of the private DNA lab, Brian Meehan, agreed to exclude those test results from other results turned over to defense attorneys, according to Meehan’s testimony during a recent court session.

In response to this revelation, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an inquiry into possible misconduct, while Duke University President Richard Brodhead has asked for Nifong to pass the case to a third party.

While official outrage is welcome, it seems belated. Where were the passionate protestations when these three young men were being convicted in the court of public opinion? The presumption of their guilt was nearly instantaneous among Duke administrators and many faculty, from whom others in the community took their cues.

As one student at Durham’s historically black North Carolina Central University put it to Newsweek, he wanted the lacrosse players punished “whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past.”

Nifong also cut corners early in the case during the process of identifying suspects. When two lineups failed to produce an attacker, Nifong requested a third lineup, but this time using only members of the lacrosse team instead of a random sampling. This move not only was at variance with normal police procedure, it may ultimately lead to charges that Nifong abused the defendants’ civil rights.

In yet another example of iffy evidence, one of the defendants — Seligmann — has taxi, restaurant and ATM receipts indicating that he was elsewhere at the time of the alleged rape. Nifong still saw fit to charge him.

No one’s arguing that the lacrosse team deserves a citizenship award for having a drinking party and hiring strippers. But there’s a universe of difference between jocks acting boorishly and brutes gang-raping a helpless woman.

Nifong still plans to prosecute Finnerty, Evans and Seligmann on charges of kidnapping and first-degree sexual offense, which can result in sentences comparable to rape. Without DNA evidence, Nifong’s case will rest largely on the stripper’s testimony.

To win, she will need more credibility than her lawyer has demonstrated, and disremembering rape seems not a good start.

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Kathleen Parker’s e-mail address is