Duke Lacrosse Players, Families Consider Lawsuit Against University

'Majority' of the Players Have Hired a Lawyer and May Sue Duke


Sept. 26, 2007 —

Dozens of current and former Duke University lacrosse players and their families plan sue the school over its treatment of the team in the aftermath of the Duke rape scandal, some of the families and their lawyer told ABC News.

Charles Cooper, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney, confirmed that "a large majority" of the players and their families have hired him to explore the possibility of suing the university. Cooper would not comment on the basis of any potential lawsuit or whether or when one might be filed.

But, several families who have retained Cooper, most of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said that they expected a suit to be filed soon. They said they were angry about the way the university; its president, Richard Brodhead; and some of the faculty treated the entire team after a black woman accused several white players of raping her at a team party.

The parents said many of Duke's professors and administrators acted as if they assumed that the players were guilty of the accusation and failed to assure their safety on campus.

"The treatment by the university was no different to the entire team as it was to the three indicted boys," said one mother, who spoke on the condition that her name would not be used. "The university was horrible to every single one of us. They threw us under the bus."

Duke Vice President John Burness said that the university's lawyers had been in discussions with lawyers for the families "for months" and that those discussions were ongoing. He declined to comment on the specifics of any potential lawsuit.

"The university established its position fairly early," Burness said. "First, if what was alleged had occurred, it was not something that was acceptable. Second, in our system you are presumed innocent. And third, the way to settle these issues is through the legal process. We held that position consistently."

All the charges against the three indicted students, Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, were dropped earlier this year and the state Attorney General's Office declared them innocent.

The three players reached a settlement with Duke in June for an undisclosed amount of money. They have separately threatened to file suit against the city of Durham if it does not pay them a reported $30 million and enact legal reforms.

Former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong has since been disbarred and served a day in jail for criminal contempt of court for his handling of the case.

Neither the families of the other players nor Cooper, a former assistant attorney general, would elaborate on any potential legal claims. Some parents said they were told not to speak to the press until a lawsuit was filed.

But the lawsuit could focus on possible violations of the university's code of conduct and on what families perceive as harassment by other students and some faculty. Duke officials have been criticized for failing to defend the players early on.

In conversations with ABC News, parents said they believed the university acted as if the players were guilty. They said the administration should have stopped some events that took place on campus, such as "wanted" posters with students' pictures that were displayed around the campus. Demonstrators protested outside the house where Duke co-captains had hosted the party.

"When you sign up with a school, you think you're sending your kids to a safe place," said John Walsh, the father of one of the lacrosse players Johnny Walsh. "Obviously we don't think our kids were protected in the total fashion that they should have been protected."

In March 2006, lacrosse players hired two escort-service dancers for a spring break party that ended with one of the dancers alleging rape against several players.

The accusations triggered a national uproar over race and class. The media descended on the campus. A group of professors, later dubbed the Group of 88, placed an ad in the student newspaper decrying "what happened to this young woman." The ad contained anonymous quotes from students who described a school culture of racism and sexism.

The ad did not mention the lacrosse team, but it was viewed by some as a condemnation of the players and became a focal point for accusations that faculty members were biased against the players.

"The response of activist members of the faculty and all of the administration was based on the presumption of guilt almost from the start, and an unwillingness to adhere to Duke's own procedures in dealing with the lacrosse players" said KC Johnson, co-author of "Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case."

Johnson served as an ABC News consultant during the case.

Families of players who spoke with ABC News said that some of the players fled campus when it was reported that the New Black Panther Party was coming to campus. About 30 Black Panther members rallied outside a university entrance and then marched to the house where the party took place, according to Duke's Web site.

A lawsuit, if filed, could focus on the university's internal policies, said Chris Gilbert, an education law attorney at Bracewell and Guiliani in Houston, who is not involved in this case. University policy, for example, says that Duke "does not discriminate on the basis … of any other university program or activity."

Gilbert said that it could be difficult for families to show that the university broke the law by not doing enough to protect their children and that the professors' statements could be protected by the First Amendment.

"This is going to be a big and messy lawsuit," he said.

None of the family members would tell ABC how much money they would ask for from the university if a suit is filed. But, John Walsh said, "This is not totally about money. This is about an explanation. They shouldn't just walk away and act like they didn't do anything."

"Everybody jumped to a lot of conclusions," he said. "I wish they would have calmed down and protected all the kids from the very beginning."