The hard-playing, hard-studying, and hard-drinking players on the Lacrosse team were blowing off steam at an off-campus party that night of March 13, 2006. They had chipped in to hire some strippers as entertainment. When one of the girls, a black Durham resident, later alleged brutal treatment, including rape, by a cluster of Lacrosse players at the party, old resentments were unleashed. Within a couple of days the incident was the talk of the town, with most assuming the guilt of the students, still unnamed. Town and gown issues and racial memories blended with modern sensitivities about sexual assault to form a nasty social brew.
Not only was the native Durham African-American community outraged, black Duke professor Houston Baker loudly insisted that all the Lacrosse players be expelled from school, the team disbanded! Liberal colleagues joined him in roundly condemning the players in particular, and white behavior toward blacks in general. Loose and extreme talk was common on all sides of the divide-everyone had an opinion, usually a bitterly angry one.
Weeks later, when the alleged victim was asked to identify her perpetrators, she was shown photos only of Lacrosse team members, like a multiple choice test with no wrong answers. In fact, the police and especially the D.A.’s office handled the case so wretchedly, in so many ways, it will stand as a negative example of justice for decades.
Meanwhile, the president of the University subtly joined those who abandoned the presumption of innocence. Defense lawyers say as months went by they begged president Richard Brodhead to meet with them to receive clear exculpatory evidence, but he always refused. The case in the end unraveled and the boys were declared innocent, but apologies from those who rushed to judgment were few, and far between.
It may have been as crazy, for it’s time, as the Salem Witch Trials. It’s called the Duke Lacrosse Case, but could as easily be called ‘The Year That Durham Went Mad.’ Join us for a classic case of the mysteries of mass psychology.