April 15, 2007 — -- 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.
As New York Times columnist Peter Applebome recently asked, "How did college kids with no shortage of character witnesses become such a free-fire zone for the correct thinkers in academia, the news media and the socially conscious left?"
It's worth remembering, finally, that while Evans has graduated, Seligmann and Finnerty -- good students and talented Division I athletes -- continue to reap the fruits of Nifong's misconduct. For reasons of personal safety, if nothing else, they cannot return to a city where Nifong remains chief prosecutor or to a University where so many prominent people vilified them. So, as of now, neither knows where they will attend school next year.
Their uncertain situation presents an opportunity for academic leaders to help rectify the injustice the two have experienced at the hands of the media and professors at Duke.
Seligmann and Finnerty are two students who have borne an unimaginable burden over the past year, but retained faith that justice would prevail. Both spent their time away from school working with high school students; both have publicly expressed hope that their case will trigger reforms in the North Carolina criminal justice system to protect wrongfully accused people in the future.
Administrators at Ivy League schools or institutions with top lacrosse programs should be desperate to have people like Seligmann or Finnerty as among their student body. Hopefully, two schools will have the courage to stand up to political correctness and help bring closure to this case.
K.C. Johnson was an ABC News consultant on the Duke Lacrosse case and is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is writing a book about the Duke case and ran one of the most popular blogs on the case -- Durham-In-Wonderland.