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Prosecutors make terrible blunders in many of this country’s local jurisdictions. So the misconduct by former Durham County, N.C., district attorney Mike Nifong that unfolded over the past two years might have gone unremarked — since such laissez faire treatment of local prosecutors is the norm. But Nifong’s misconduct, aimed at members of the Duke University lacrosse team, became famously public — partly because of the way college athletes are lionized across the nation, partly because the crime involved the supposed gang rape of a black woman by white male students, but mostly because the district attorney broke the rules more brazenly than most. In their rushed-to-press book, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, authors Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson demonstrate in detail how and why Nifong subverted the criminal justice system. Taylor writes regularly about the law for magazines and newspapers, including Legal Times. Johnson, a history professor, became fascinated with the case as a research exercise, then began commenting on a keenly read blog he named Durham-in-Wonderland. Taylor and Johnson helped exonerate the lacrosse players and unmask the accuser as a liar with a criminal history who is probably mentally ill. Throughout the book, Taylor and Johnson are relentless in their criticism of the law enforcement establishment in Durham city and county, aiming their sharpest barbs at Nifong, his office investigator, and two police officers. Most of the defense attorneys who entered the case, on the other hand, are treated uncritically. The book has the feel of a Bob Woodward tome — those who cooperate with the author come off looking better than they might otherwise. CAMPUS PC A significant percentage of the book, however, strays from the criminal justice battlefield to the campus battlefield. The authors accuse a large portion of the Duke faculty, Duke’s president, plus numerous other campus administrators of prejudging the case. According to Taylor and Johnson, lots of Ph.D. holders jumped to the conclusion that white athletes, many of them from wealthy families, would surely be guilty of prejudice and rape. The accusation, even when it began to appear flimsy, then served as an open-and-shut case to many. The book is also a critique of the news media, many of whom are skewered for their close-mindedness and factual inaccuracies. Taylor and Johnson charge that many journalists are just as politically correct and lacking in common sense as the offending faculty. The New York Times coverage receives especially harsh treatment. They carp repeatedly about several staff writers, especially Duff Wilson, who is among the most respected reporters in the investigative journalism world. Even accomplished journalists can mess up, to be sure. But the authors’ condemnation of Wilson is over the top, as they call his reporting “a journalistic laughingstock,” and mostly unconvincing. Without identifying their sources by name, Taylor and Johnson accuse Wilson’s editors at the Times of telling him to take “a more pro-prosecution line” than had been apparent in earlier coverage. In fact, Taylor and Johnson issue blanket condemnations against the Times staff. For example, after citing with approval a David Brooks column about the Duke case, Taylor and Johnson comment that inside the newsroom, the column “was widely shrugged off as of little interest. Why? Because Brooks’ brand of conservatism — so moderate that he rooted from the Democrats to win control of Congress in 2006 — still put him far to the right of almost every other writer and editor at the Times.” Putting aside how they could possibly know whether Brooks’ column was “widely shrugged off” and where “almost every other writer and editor” besides Brooks stands politically, the allegation demonstrates a poor understanding of newsrooms and a conspiratorial mind-set. They demonstrate that mind-set page after page. Taylor and Johnson praise a few journalists who covered the case, especially editor Melanie Sill and reporter Joseph Neff at the Raleigh News and Observer. As for the journalists they criticize, Taylor and Johnson need to shed their vague newsroom conspiracy theories and better recognize a major factor in the less-than-perfect stories: The prosecutor and the police, sworn to tell the truth, were feeding lies to the media. Until Proven Innocent, despite its shortcomings, is successful on one level. It is a useful, mostly chronological, in-depth account of a high-profile criminal case that became difficult to follow. The primary importance of the book derives from the lessons Taylor and Johnson teach, including: • Rogue police officers sometimes abuse their power in ways that should lead to immediate reassignment, suspension, or firing. In the Duke lacrosse case, for example, “everybody knew” that Durham police officer Mark D. Gottlieb disliked Duke students and had allegedly treated them unnecessarily severely in the past. Why Gottlieb’s superiors allowed him to become lead investigator of the sexual assault allegations against the lacrosse players defies understanding.

• Police and prosecutors should quickly check the credibility of accusers, perhaps especially in rape cases, where false reports are common. Crystal Gail Mangum, the accuser in the Durham case, could have been telling the truth, of course. But she had lied so often in the past, about so many matters, that any law enforcement officer knowing her history should have proceeded with extra caution. Instead, Gottlieb, Nifong, and others involved in vetting the 46 suspected athletes failed to filter the allegations through Mangum’s credibility. • Journalists should never try to massage the facts to fit into a master narrative, in this case a narrative involving subjugation of black women by privileged white males. Anyone who reads to the end of this book will probably need a hot shower to wash away the grimy sensation of so many professionals behaving so badly.


Steve Weinberg is a veteran investigative reporter. He led a team conducting a national study of local prosecutors that is mentioned briefly (and favorably) by the authors on page 359.

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