This week marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the now-infamous Duke lacrosse rape case. This past Sunday, March 13, ESPN released a documentary titled Fantastic Lies, covering the case that captured the attention of a nation.
It all started on March 13, 2006. While most Duke students were on spring break, the Duke lacrosse team—which was hoping for its second national championship appearance in a row—threw a party. The young men made the poor choice to hire two strippers for the evening, paying them with money they’d been given for meals that week. One of the strippers, a single mother of two, later went to the hospital and claimed that she’d been gang raped in the bathroom by three of the players.
The story spread like wildfire in the media and galvanized a full-fledged movement determined to see that the team had its comeuppance. As pressure mounted, the team’s season was canceled, the coach forced to step down from the position he’d held for ten years, and three of the players were indicted and spent the next year in the harsh light of the public eye, defending themselves against the charges—charges that not only turned out to be essentially baseless but also demonstrably false.
The documentary covers the details of the initial incident, the evidence (or lack thereof) against the players, and their tough road to exoneration. But what makes the documentary particularly difficult to watch is its unforgiving account of the public’s involvement in the mishandling of the affair. In this way, the Duke lacrosse scandal serves as a reminder of the power and responsibility of the public voice. But it also highlights the importance of caution and patience in the court of public opinion when rape accusations are at play—for the sake of the accused, yes, but also for the sake of rape victims.
Hindsight makes two facts about the Duke case painfully clear. First of all, thanks to a camera-happy district attorney looking to score points with voters and hungry journalists salivating over a juicy story, the players were considered guilty in the court of public opinion before any evidence proving as much had been procured. “A Team’s Troubles Shock Few at Duke,” the New York Times wrote. “Sex, Lies, and Duke,” read the cover of Newsweek. As the mother of one of the indicted players, Reade Seligmann, put it, “Every person with every agenda wanted it to be true.”
Second of all, pressure from public opinion heavily influenced Duke’s and the community’s handling of the matter. Almost from the moment the allegations were made, the Duke student body, the Durham community, and eventually the entire nation, were calling for the team’s coach to be fired and the boys to be punished. While the court of public opinion cannot sentence anyone to prison, it can put undue pressure on schools, or other institutions, to act—and that isn’t always a good thing. As Christina Cartucci of Slate writes, “The momentum of a country hungry for justice overtook any serious investigation of the alleged crime.” As a result, the reputations of several men were marred, three innocent men were nearly incarcerated, and a man lost his job.
Of course, for the young men, there was a just resolution. DNA tests revealed that there was essentially no physical DNA evidence linking the three young men to the young woman. The defense lawyers successfully proved that the timelines of the accuser and the accused rendered the incident impossible. The Duke lacrosse team resumed play the following season, the indicted players and Coach Pressler settled with the university, the district attorney spent a night in jail for withholding evidence, and everyone went on with their lives. But there is one group of individuals that will never receive any kind of restitution for the damage this incident has done to them—real, actual rape victims.
The fact of the matter is that false rape accusations happen. How often? We don’t really know. Estimates range from 2 to 41 percent, and, in reality, reliable statistics do not actually exist. But they do occur, and, in a real way, they hurt legitimate rape victims. Not to downplay the ways in which false rape accusations threaten the lives of the accused, but every rape accusation that turns out to be false casts doubt on all legitimate ones, making it even harder for rape victims to come forward.
The harm caused by false rape accusations increases when the falsely accused are not only falsely accused but also wrongfully punished. The fear of wrongfully convicting an innocent person becomes more tangible. The Duke incident is a perfect illustration of this. As Jessica Luther writes for Vocativ, “The case is mentioned during sexual assault trials by defense attorneys whenever they can manage to work it in; a mere mention of ‘Duke lacrosse,’ even if ultimately objected and sustained, plants a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind about the victim’s credibility.” The infamous 2014 UVA rape debacle has had a similar effect. In both cases, public opinion played a significant part.
It is understandable that those of us looking to aid rape victims would do so by taking them at their word and demanding that the accused are punished as swiftly as possible. But caution in these circumstances, in addition to helping the wrongfully accused, is the best service we can do to rape victims. Yes, we should sympathize with accusers, and part of taking them seriously is to prioritize a thorough investigation of their claims. It’s best for everyone if we refrain from presuming guilt and clamoring for premature punishment.
Because if there’s something the Duke scandal demonstrates, it’s that when we put blind faith before facts, it can backfire on the very people we intended to help.