Last week, in an all-but-unprecedented event in American legal history, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper publicly dismissed all charges against three former Duke lacrosse players. He cited not insufficient evidence, but instead their absolute innocence.
The attorney general declared that Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans were victims of a false accuser and a "rogue prosecutor," and that "no credible evidence" existed to sustain the accuser's myriad, mutually contradictory, allegations.
The reaction from some major news organizations to this announcement was startling. While not challenging Cooper's actions, the Boston Globe labeled Evans, Seligmann and Finnerty "louts." Columnist Dan Shanoff called them "douchebags." The Washington Post clucked that the three players "were not paragons of virtue," and that "some of the players -- though not necessarily the three accused students -- made racially derogatory remarks to the accuser and the other dancer who accompanied her." (Actually, the second dancer, Kim Roberts, unequivocally stated that Evans said nothing derogatory to her, while Seligmann and Finnerty both proved they had left the party well before the racially charged argument occurred.)
"Nightline" co-host Terry Moran told people not to "feel sorry for the Dukies," noting that "they are very differently situated in life from, say, the young women of the Rutgers University women's basketball team," and, "there are many, many cases of prosecutorial misconduct across our country every year."
Such comments are cold-hearted at best and shameless at worst. Take the experience of the first two players against whom Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong brought indictments, Seligmann and Finnerty.
Sophomores, they were immediately suspended from school. Their mugshots appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the guilt-implying headline "Sex, Lies, and Duke." Eighty-eight professors from their own institution signed an April statement asserting that something "happened" to the accuser and saying "thank you" to protesters who carried signs reading "Castrate." They were compared to Hitler by one cable TV commentator, who also speculated that their parents might have sexually abused them.
In a May court appearance, Seligmann received death threats from members of the New Black Panthers. A July Washington Post column mocked the tall, lanky Finnerty -- accurately described as a "gentle giant" by one of his friends -- as a "disgusting" person who took "fun in tormenting the innocent."
In an April 20, 2006, appearance before the local Chamber of Commerce, Duke president Richard Brodhead said, "If they didn't do it, whatever they did is bad enough."
What, exactly, did Seligmann and Finnerty do? They attended a spring break party they had no role in organizing and they drank some beer. That's enough to be condemned as "louts" or "douchebags" or racists?
At this stage, few people would deny that Seligmann and Finnerty were subjected to the highest-profile case of prosecutorial misconduct in modern American history. But they also experienced months of public assaults on their character from journalists or professors for whom their case provided an opportunity too tempting not to exploit.