But for two extraordinary circumstances that occurred in the Duke lacrosse case – the North Carolina State Bar’s filing of ethics charges against Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong and the attorney general’s investigation and exoneration of the accused students – a deeply flawed case almost certainly would have proceeded at least to trial, Professor James Coleman said during a panel discussion at the Law School on April 14. “I think at most you would have hoped was that [the students] had gone to trial and would have been acquitted, but it would have forever left open the question of whether they in fact were innocent. The attorney general’s extraordinary action this week, for most people, settled the question that the students were innocent and that it’s unlikely any crime occurred.”
Characterizing the case as a “wrongful convictions reality case” played out in real time, Coleman, who directs the Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said that such cases turn on the tone set at the start of the case for the police and for prosecutors.
“If the police and prosecutors set out with a single focus, that dictates what happens,” said Coleman, who has been singled out by various parties, including the accused students’ lawyers, for commendation for his public and tenacious insistence on adhering to the rule of law and the presumption of innocence in the case. “In this case, it appeared to me that that’s what the prosecutor was doing: He had decided that a rape had occurred; he decided that Duke students had committed it; he decided that it was racially motivated; and basically he took over control of the investigation, and then basically tried to find evidence to support his conclusions.”
The unequivocal and extraordinary exoneration of the students likely could not have occurred had Duke University officials been more active in the criminal case, as many critics had called on them to do, said Coleman. “There has been a lot of criticism of the University. People say it didn’t actively support these students, it didn’t ‘take on’ Nifong, it didn’t call for these students to be exonerated, and so forth. I think that would have been a mistake. In fact, I think it would have harmed their cause, not helped it. It would have made it more difficult for the State Bar to take the unprecedented step it did, because it would have looked like they were yielding to pressure from Duke, it would have made it more difficult for the attorney general to exonerate them – that is a very unprecented thing – because it would have made it look like he was yielding to Duke. And it would have played into the politics – Nifong’s politics in this case – which was to make it a case about race, in which privileged white kids were basically running roughshod over the black community, and that he was the person who was sort of defending the community from all of these rich people and from Duke University. … The students were basically left there, by themselves with their lawyers, to rely on the legal system.”
Calling attention to the broader issue of wrongful convictions, Coleman observed that the fact that Duke students were accused in the case was not material to his public comments as it progressed. “My concern was that the manner in which the prosecutor was conducting the case made it very likely that innocent people might be charged with a crime that they did not commit or, as it turned out, that did not occur.” It was not a unique case in the sense of how the criminal justice system can go awry, he said, but in who the defendants were – the fact that they had influence, could afford to retain the best lawyers in the state, and attract the attention of the press, as opposed to being poor people of color who can’t afford competent counsel and fail to attract coverage.
“One of the bright spots in all of this was the statement of [accused student] Reade Seligmann when this was all over,” Coleman said. “He talked about the awareness that he had gained from going through this. There are many other people who go through this daily, and we don’t pay attention to it. If that message is learned, then I think that there really will have been something useful that came out of all this mess.”
A webcast of the complete panel discussion, “Ethics Lessons Learned in the Duke Lacrosse Case,” can be viewed at http://www.law.duke.edu/webcast/. In addition to Coleman’s comments, Professor Thomas Metzloff, who teaches ethics at the Law School, reviews the ethics charges faced by prosecutor Nifong, Visiting Professor Michael Tigar, a renowned advocate and activist, discusses the management of high profile, and Duke senior and Chronicle editor Seyward Darby, offers a perspective on media involvement in the case.