Taking Our Time on the Duke Rape Case

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There are all kinds of reasons why the Duke rape case landed center stage two months ago and has stayed there ever since. In the early days, Mike Nifong, the prosecutor who was up for reelection on May 2 (he won) was accused of an excess of zeal, not to mention an obsession with media visibility, in the days leading up to the arrest of two members of the Duke Lacrosse team.

Since then it's been the other side's turn. This week, when Nifong charged a third suspect, team co-captain Dave Evans, Evans did not pull his jacket over his head and slouch through his perp walk. He called his own press conference. "You have all been told some fantastic lies," he declared, "and I look forward in watching them unravel in the weeks to come, as they already have in weeks past, and the truth will come out." His lawyer referred not to the victim, but "the false accuser," and released results of a polygraph supporting Evans' story.

It's the job of the various skilled defense lawyers hired by Duke players to change the climate that Nifong worked to establish at the outset. Their efforts to sway the views of potential jurors affects the larger audience as well. They are not interested in disquisitions on the case as a parable about race or class or privilege. But they do have an interest in conducting a seminar on the rights of the accused in a democracy: we're all equal under the law, justice is blind, those accused are innocent until proven guilty, the constitution guarantees a right to a speedy trial.

That was the focus in court on Thursday when Reade Seligmann's lawyer pressed for lower bail and a speedy trial. "We want a trial as fast as we can get it," attorney Kirk Osborn said. "This young kid wants to go to school in the fall and he can't until this is resolved." By this time we had already heard about Seligmann's cab ride, ATM records, cell phone calls and dorm keycard all suggesting he could not have been present when the rape is supposed to have occurred. Osborn and the other defense lawyers have raised enough challenges to Nifong's case to invite people who do not often find themselves identifying with those charged with vicious crimes to walk in their shoes, imagine what it might be like to stand accused, publicly condemned and then slowly, slowly, try to crawl back toward a life that will never be the same.

But Superior Court Judge Ronald Stephens rejected the plea: the case "is not going to jump ahead of the line and be handled any differently," he said, and Nifong said it could be next spring before it comes to trial. However well people understand the desire for a speedy trial in this case, what serves the interests of defendants does not necessarily serve the interests of justice. The state has an interest in finding out what really happened that night off campus. Abiding uncertainty does not make for a gripping TV show. But somehow in these very public cases that are tried in the court of public opinion long before they reach the court of law, we lower our standards too easily. Maybe the conflict and confusion surrounding the Duke case will make us watch a bit more skeptically, suspend judgment a while longer, the next time either the prosecutors or the defense try to persuade us to render a verdict before a trial has even begun.