Read 'Until Proven Innocent' Here
A new book follows the drama in the Duke lacrosse players' rape case.
Sept. 4, 2007 — -- When a black stripper accused several white members of Duke University's lacrosse team of sexual assault, the case gripped the country in 2006. The players soon were indicted and the team's season was forfeited.
Eventually the players were vindicated, but not before creating some controversy.
"Until Proven Innocent" discusses the case and how it unfolded. It talks about how now-disgraced prosecutor Mike Nifong disregarded evidence of the boys' innocence and even offers remedies for prosecutorial abuse.
Read an excerpt of the book below.
The Durham heat burned through Devon Sherwood's jersey as he waited for the lacrosse team he longed to join to come from the locker room. It was his eighteenth birthday, September 16, 2005. Shifting his feet on the green turf, he pondered the challenge ahead.
The lanky freshman had been a good high school goalie in Freeport, Long Island -- good enough to be recruited by five small colleges and offered a probable starting position by prestigious Williams.
Duke had been a different story. A lacrosse powerhouse, it had come within a goal of winning the national championship in May 2005. This year's team was even more loaded with talent, and widely seen as the one to beat in 2006. Mike Pressler, the 2005 NCAA lacrosse coach of the year, could fill his twelve scholarship slots with high school all-Americans and near all-Americans. Devon had not made that cut.
He chose Duke anyway. His father, Chuck, had played lacrosse for Duke. And when Devon and his parents had toured the campus, Pressler had greeted them warmly, encouraging Devon to try out as a walk-on.
Few walk-ons make the roster in big-time college sports. Even fewer get playing time. And Duke was as big-time as lacrosse gets. So Devon's excitement was tinged with apprehension as the forty-five blue-helmeted figures came jogging onto the field. They formed two perfect lines, in full battle array, down to the fierce-looking face masks that in a few months would -- along with charges of gang rape and racism -- fix the team's image on the nation's television screens.
Showtime, Devon thought. Will I win their respect? Will they accept me?
One by one, the forty-five figures came up to the rookie, shook hands, introduced themselves, wished him luck. They didn't have to do that, he thought.
Two weeks and dozens of saves later, Coach Pressler called Devon into his office. Was he having a good time? Was he ready for the commitment and hard work expected of a Division I athlete? Devon was ready. He would be the third-string goalie. But he was sure he had to be the happiest person alive. Happy, and eager to improve. He had big shoes to fill. Chuck Sherwood, Duke's first African-American lacrosse player, had set goalkeeping records, including most saves in a game.
Now Devon would be the only black guy on a team with forty-six white guys. His contributions to team culture included a rap song incorporating every teammate's name or nickname, depending on which rhymed better. Everyone had at least one nickname. Devon's was "D-Wood."
The practices were grueling: at least fifteen hours a week in the fall and twenty-two hours in the spring of lacrosse drills, scrimmages, running, and weight lifting. Plus a full course load. Plus, for Devon, getting to know as many of Duke's other six hundred black undergraduates as he could.
Many of the other lacrosse players hung together off as well as on the field, acquiring a reputation for clannishness, in part because there were so many of them, and for going around in large, sometimes loud, often conspicuous groups, and for drunken revelry that stood out even at a legendary party school. In fact, aside from their visibility, their behavior was not atypical of many other Duke students, but it made the lacrosse players an unusually inviting target for those displeased with the Duke status quo.
One of the nation's ten top academic institutions, Duke could fill most seats in every entering class with high school valedictorians. It had also earned a national reputation as a hedonistic scene of wild antics and rampant sexual "hookups" -- mostly one-night stands—marinated in oceans of alcohol.
Fraternities and sororities, informally ranked, dominated the social scene, which was mostly off campus because of Duke's strict drinking rules. With the young women as eager for sexual conquests as the guys, the female-male ratio and the balance of sexual power favored the alpha males, especially at Duke. Indeed, more than one sorority hired male strippers for its own initiation, a fact that became public in 2006 but was all but ignored by the media.
Inevitably the most extreme parties worked their way into the media as if they reflected normal affairs. A January 2005 bacchanal, for instance, brought national publicity. Police raiding an off-campus rental house jammed with two hundred students found coeds in bikinis, emulating the movie Old School by wrestling in a kiddie pool full of baby oil while beer-swilling boys watched and cheered. The scene was reminiscent of the raucous Saint Ray fraternity parties in Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Set at fictional Dupont University, which Wolfe modeled largely on Duke, the novel tells the story of a sheltered but extraordinarily bright student from a small North Carolina town who arrives in search of intellectual challenge and emotional growth. What she finds is a place where star athletes outrank star students and the route to social acceptance is a booze- and sex-obsessed culture of hard partying male athletes and scantily clad sorority girls. Charlotte dutifully, if unhappily, takes that route.
At Duke, as at Wolfe's Dupont, it was not all fun. Some women brought impressive academic and other credentials, only to become "unhappy, insecure girls all fighting to get rammed by someone of status," wrote Dukeobsrvr, an anonymous student blogger. All this provoked much gnashing of teeth and agonizing among Duke faculty and administrators, especially those concerned about equality and dignity for women.
"Men and women agree the double standard persists: men gain status through sexual activity while women lose status," complained a high-level, female-dominated group chaired by then-president Nannerl O. Keohane, a major 2003 report by the Steering Committee for the Women's Initiative at Duke University on the lives of women at Duke. "Fraternities control the mainstream social scene to such an extent that women feel like they play by the men's rules. Social life is further complicated by a number of embedded hierarchies, from the widely understood ranking of Greek organizations to the opposite trajectories women and men take over four years, with women losing status."
Most students took a less jaundiced view. What feminist professors and some others saw as hedonistic excess, many female students saw as being liberated and proud. "Duke was best summarized by a 'Work hard, play hard' mentality," recalled a 2006 grad. "While some burned the candle too close, others were able to handle successfully all of their responsibilities and took pride in doing so."
The party scene -- or what was left of it after various purges by the Duke administration in recent years -- was only one of Duke's many parts. Most students either stayed away from the wild parties to focus on academics and extracurricular activities or worked as hard as they played.
Most -- but hardly all -- of the forty-seven lacrosse players were in the latter category, and something like a bunch of big-man-on-campus fraternity brothers. "In the order of the social universe of Duke undergraduates," Peter Boyer wrote in The New Yorker, "the lacrosse players ranked at the top of the dominance hierarchy."
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