On April 11, 2007, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper stepped before a crowded press conference and spoke the words that ended one of the most publicized legal stories in recent American history. “We believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges,” he said.
Cooper’s long-awaited decision ended a legal ordeal for three Duke University students who had been charged with first-degree sexual offense, kidnapping and, earlier, with rape. The allegations were made by one of two exotic dancers that members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team had hired to perform at an off-campus party in March 2006. Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong stated publicly that a rape had taken place and prosecuted the three students vigorously even as evidence mounted that raised serious questions about the accuser’s credibility and the veracity of the charges.
Cooper took over the case in January 2007 after the state bar association filed ethics charges against Nifong for withholding exculpatory evidence and making inflammatory statements about the case. In dismissing the charges and stating the attack never occurred, Cooper spoke of a “rush to accuse” and said “there were many points in this case where caution would have served justice better than bravado." In one of the many similar judgments made about how the news media covered the case, columnist David Broder described “a painful exercise in journalistic excess.”
The case changed the lives of the three young men and their families and deeply affected the broader Duke community, which found itself in the spotlight with major stories in The New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and thousands of other outlets. Five segments on “60 Minutes” were devoted to the case, as were extensive commentaries on blogs and tabloid television shows.
Faced with the case and its larger implications, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead moved to address broader university issues highlighted by the situation, forming a council of advisers and four committees to examine the lacrosse team, the administration's response to the incident, the student judicial process and Duke’s campus culture. In the weeks and months that followed, the committees issued their findings, all of which Duke made public immediately.
Independent of the legal case, given the standards expected of teams that represent Duke, the university forfeited two lacrosse games in the immediate aftermath of the incident as a response to admitted behaviors by team members, such as underage drinking. Brodhead later suspended the remaining games – not as punishment, but as a necessary action until the legal situation became clearer, based on concerns including the safety of Duke’s players. At the time, the district attorney was saying emphatically that as many as 46 of the players were still under suspicion for the alleged crimes. After the district attorney indicted three of the players, Duke placed on interim suspension the two who had not yet graduated – part of a routine protocol most U.S. universities follow when students are charged with violent felony crimes. Duke later modified the status of the two players to “administrative leave” and, soon after it became clear in court that Nifong’s statements were not credible, invited them to return in good standing, months before Cooper’s decision. In addition, in an effort to create a fresh start for the program, Duke replaced Coach Mike Pressler with an interim coach and, subsequently, with John Danowski, who previously coached the lacrosse team at Hofstra University.
Brodhead told “60 Minutes” in August 2006 that “the DA's case will be on trial just as much as our students will be.” After Nifong dropped the most serious of the charges – rape – in December 2006, Brodhead called on him to recuse himself from the case, saying, “Mr. Nifong has an obligation to explain to all of us his conduct in this matter.”
From the beginning of the affair, other observers voiced strong, often harsh, opinions about the players, the district attorney, the university and nearly every other aspect of the story. Initial criticism focused on the players, with protesters assembling outside the house where the party occurred, banging pots and shouting their concerns. As doubts grew about the charges, criticism shifted to Nifong and his team, as well as to some administrators, students, community members and others – including a group of faculty members who published an ad in The Chronicle – who were accused of prejudging the players or of using the case to promote their own agendas. The lacrosse team returned to the field in February 2007 before a cheering crowd that included Brodhead and much of the university’s senior leadership, as well as thousands of students and the largest group of reporters ever to attend a regular-season Duke lacrosse game. The team went on to win the league championship and to reach the national championship final game while also maintaining a strong record in the classroom and the community.
Meanwhile, Duke began responding to the concerns raised by the committee that had examined the campus culture. Approximately one year after the event, Duke’s fund raising hit record levels, applications for student admissions remained near record levels, new media guidelines were in place to enhance the privacy of students and campus life began to return to normal.
On the legal front, in June 2007 a N.C. State Bar disciplinary panel concluded after a trial that DA Nifong had made inflammatory and prejudicial comments about the case, intentionally withheld DNA evidence and lied to court officials. The panel called for his disbarment and Nifong resigned his office.
Also in June, university leaders announced a settlement with David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, noting in a statement how “these young men and their families have been the subject of intense scrutiny that has taken a heavy toll” and saying “it is in the best interests of the Duke community to eliminate the possibility of future litigation and move forward.” An accompanying statement from Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann said, “We hope that today’s resolution will begin to bring the Duke family back together again, and we look forward to working with the University to develop and implement initiatives that will prevent similar injustices and ensure that the lessons of the last year are never forgotten.”
Robert K. Steel, the chairman of Duke's Board of Trustees, summarized Duke’s remarkable "lacrosse story" in a message he sent to the campus community following Cooper's decision in April. "There is much to learn from the events that we have lived through, and we intend to put this learning to use," Steel wrote. "Duke is a great university that steps up to challenges and opportunities, and together we will use this moment to make our community stronger."