Until Proven Innocent

Until Proven Innocent by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson.  I hesitate to review non-fiction books because even bad authors are going to have researched their topic much more thoroughly than I can and to criticize their work without expert knowledge seems unfair.  However, there are some books one just feels compelled to read and Until Proven Innocent is one of those.  In March 2006, what became known as the Duke lacrosse rape case burst into the national media spotlight.  The case ended several months later when the North Carolina Attorney General stated that the players were innocent and, eventually, the Durham District Attorney was disbarred for his unethical actions during the investigation.  Based on extensive interviews with the defense legal team, lacrosse team members, and Duke officials as well as a comprehensive review of the public records, Taylor and Johnson make an impassioned and detailed analysis of many aspects of the case, its participants, the environment at the university and the media coverage.  I opened this book with much eagerness, but also with several existing biases.

First, I am a second-generation Duke University alumnus with two degrees from the school, so I understand its history, its strengths and weaknesses, its sometimes difficult relationship with the city of Durham in which it resides, and the perceptions, both accurate and inaccurate, that exist around the country.  However, I recognize that an entire generation of students has attended the school since my undergraduate days and that my understanding of daily campus life, especially among the faculty, is out-of-date.

Second, during those years on campus, one of my dorm mates and a good friend was allegedly sexually assaulted.  To my knowledge, the alleged criminal was never found.  I use the word “alleged” only as a legal term.  In my mind there is no doubt, despite the statistics about false accusations provided by the authors, that my friend was telling the truth and was attacked.  Years later I still get angry about the incident and reading this book certainly brought those emotions forth again.

Third, my personal experiences with lacrosse players on campus were mixed.  I found the majority of them to be quite larger physically than the average student and also aggressive, a good trait on the field, but one that could easily be seen as intimidating, especially when mixed with alcohol.  I also knew others that would never resemble the hooligan stereotype and I knew athletes from several other sports and recognize that the time demands of an athletics career and academics make it easy for them to feel isolated from the main student body, and therefore misrepresented.  As Duke has emphasized athletics more and more recently, I imagine, though cannot be certain, that this isolation is only more pronounced.

Finally, having worked in the sports media industry for several years, I repeatedly saw athletes proclaim their innocence only to be proven wrong in court or to settle with their accusers out-of-court.  I also personally researched the legal terminology used in our own coverage of cases and can understand how easy it is to misrepresent situations, either mistakenly or intentionally.

I hope that given my past experiences I could have been an impartial juror for this case, but I can’t be certain of that.  When I initially saw the reports in the national media, I felt less anguish for either the accuser or the defendants, but rather shame for the university and my fellow alumni.  I am curious as to how the authors felt at that moment, because, after spending months interviewing the defense team, the authors express only outrage and anger at everyone except for the defense along with a barely concealed tone of condescension.

The one-sided nature of this book served as an important reminder that I need to read skeptically, both in print and online, be aware of author’s agendas and the source material they are basing their conclusions on even if I can’t examine it myself, and pay attention to the use of adverbs and adjectives when reading and writing as they can easily turn a reasonable argument into hyperbolic ranting.  The authors at times relied on defense team recollections of other individual’s statements, leading to at least one glaring error.  In describing the first meeting between lacrosse team members and attorney Wes Covington on March 18, the authors claim that Covington “joked that he couldn’t meet for long because he had to get to Greensboro for an ACC basketball tournament game.”  Only two pages earlier, the authors stated that the cops, during their March 16 search of the house, “got the guys to turn on the TV and started watching the NCAA basketball tournament,” an event that started four days after the ACC tournament finished.  In criticizing the suspensions by the Duke administration of the Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty after their arrests, the authors state that “if every Duke student who had ever done something like that [attending a stripper party and engaging in underage beer drinking] were suspended, the place would be almost empty.”  I am not sure how the authors define “almost empty,” but I am confident that were such mass suspensions handed down, the campus would not be a ghost town.  The authors spent more than two pages describing the drinking scene at Duke, but made no mention of the percentage of underage students who drink, whereas it didn’t take much research on my part to find a quote from former President Nannerl Keohane in a 2000 alumni magazine that “13 percent of Duke students never drink.”  I also found it interesting that early in the book, the authors switched from using last names for the three defendants to using first names, but continued using last names for everyone else.  This naming convention presented the players in a softer, more favorable way.

The authors seem to feel the need to shout their message and repeat it several times because they feel it is so important and it is.  The biggest lesson to be learned from this case, and from the book itself, is “how helpless the vast majority of criminal defendants are when in the hands of unscrupulous or overzealous prosecutors.”  The authors’ painstaking research into the events of the case, from the night of the incident until attorney general’s press conference thirteen months later, provides ample and convincing testimony that the concept of presumption of innocence must be strenuously fought for in every case.

Unfortunately, the authors could not contain themselves to this vital issue, but chose to attack the media for a lack of journalistic responsibility and to proclaim the demise of academia at the hands of campus activists with “their extremist race/class/gender worldviews.”  Taylor and Johnson admirably describe the disturbing actions and inaction of the national and local media, the Duke faculty and administration, and the Durham community as they relate specifically to the case, but their political essay on the “Assault on Excellence” about academia’s evolution has no relevance and should have been weeded by an astute editor.  Further, the two chapters on other cases of prosecutorial misconduct, the Innocence Project, and the role feminism has played in changing the attitudes toward presumed guilt in sexual assault cases should have been appendices to the main body of work.

Having finished the book, I am glad that I read it and will recommend it to others.  I will try to watch and read media coverage of cases in a new light and be more careful in my own commentary.  I still feel shame for the university that its members did not act as responsibly as they should have, but I am still proud to be an alum. 

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