What Happened at Duke?
Sex. Race. A raucous party. A rape charge. And a prosecutor up for re-election. Inside the mystery that has roiled a campus and riveted the country.
By Susannah Meadows and Evan Thomas, Newsweek , May 1, 2006
Racial tension, class conflict and allegations of sexual violence are perfect ingredients for a media circus. On eBay last week, you could buy T shirts decorated with a cartoonish "South Park" character, posing as a Duke lacrosse player, crudely taunting the prosecutor: MIKE NIFONG S---- A--. On talk radio, Rush Limbaugh was speculating whether the Rev. Al Sharpton would arrive on the scene to play the Tawana Brawley card after, as Limbaugh put it, "the lacrosse team supposedly, you know, raped some, uh, hos." (Limbaugh later apologized for a "terrible slip of the tongue.") On cable TV, Jon Stewart was making fun of Geraldo Rivera for gravely and fatuously intoning, "It is not always the nuns that get raped. Sometimes it's the strippers that get raped."
Some people may find it funny. Except, of course, the case is no laughing matter to the young woman who suffered injuries that appear to be caused by a sexual assault. And to the family of Reade Seligmann, one of the two players indicted last week, the whole affair must seem like a grotesque nightmare. The 20-year-old Seligmann turned himself in to police at dawn to be handcuffed and charged with first-degree forcible rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. Less than 48 hours later, his lawyer was able to produce evidence that would seem to indicate it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime. Photos taken by a partygoer and viewed by NEWSWEEK show the alleged victim, an exotic dancer, ending a brief performance for the team at 12:03 a.m. Between 12:05 and 12:24 a.m., Seligmann dialed at least eight separate calls on his cell phone. A taxi driver said that he had picked up Seligmann and another friend, who were laughing and joking, at about 12:19, and took them to an ATM (where Seligmann swiped his card), to a fast-food restaurant and then to his dorm, where Seligmann swiped in at 12:46 a.m. In other words, it would seem Seligmann must have committed a sex crime in less than two minutes or while he was on the phone. Defense lawyers were broadly hinting that the second defendant, Collin Finnerty, had left the party before the dance even began. Both men's lawyers maintain their clients are innocent.
Nifong, the prosecutor, has indicated that he may still charge a third alleged rapist from among the 40-odd players who attended the party. Earlier DNA tests did not implicate any of the 46 members of the team (the one black player was not tested; the alleged victim, who is black, said her attackers were white men). But results from a second round of DNA tests are expected back this week, and defense lawyer Bill Thomas told NEWSWEEK that in the first round some DNA showed up under the woman's fingernails, though tests were inconclusive about identity. When the case first broke in the press, Nifong, a white man who is running for election in a racially mixed county, hinted to NEWSWEEK that blood and urine tests of the woman would reveal the presence of a date-rape drug. It appears from medical records that the woman was sexually abused, though the precise timing is unclear. The woman apparently told Nifong that she is "100 percent" sure of the identity of her assailants. But the aggressive lawyers defending the team were quick to point out that she was identifying them only from photos of the team, not from the usual police lineup including suspects as well as people unconnected to the case.
From the beginning, the case has provided a tawdry real-world blend of true crime, high life and low manners, for the likes of novelists John Grisham and Tom Wolfe. Raunchy rich kids. Town-gown conflict. Raw racial politics. A bedeviling forensic puzzle. But the denouement may be tragic for everyone involved, and the only sure outcome is the iron law of unintended consequences. The story has freakish turns, but it is also the product of a widespread college-age culture that proud parents do not wish to examine too closely: future Masters of the Universe who sometimes behave like thugs.
With its soaring Gothic chapel tower (the gift of a tobacco heir), Duke was the physical model for Dupont University in Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons"—an elite school vying with the Ivies for prestige and the best and brightest students. For decades those students were white and privileged, though in recent years Duke, like its competitors, has become more diverse.
Traditionally, the men's fraternities occupied choice dormitories fronting West Campus. Underage drinking was winked at. The frats held keggers on the lawn not far from the chapel. But beginning in the mid-'90s, the university administration began pushing the partying off campus, in part because of worries about legal liability.
The fun just moved to quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods near East Campus. The frats and athletic teams began renting houses. Neighbors were not thrilled to be awakened at 2 a.m. by loud rock music and drunken students throwing up in their yards. The Durham police, who do not look fondly on wealthy children's behaving like louts, began citing Duke students for minor nuisance crimes, such as holding open beer cans and public urination. In the winter of 2005, police arrived to break up a party of some 200 kids, and found girls in bikinis, inspired by the movie "Old School," wrestling in a tub filled with baby oil. Town-gown tension ratcheted up, so much so that the university recently bought up 12 houses that had been used for student parties, with the intention of selling them to professors and quieter homeowners.
One of those houses, at 610 North Buchanan Boulevard, was rented by three of the four captains of the Duke lacrosse team. Lacrosse players at Duke have generally excellent grades, almost always graduate and often find jobs waiting for them on Wall Street. But they have a reputation for swagger and rowdiness, according to The Chronicle, the student newspaper, which wrote last week, "Players frequently walk around with girls—sometimes called 'lacrosstitutes' by their peers—in tow," and have been known to kick in doors and urinate out windows. History professor Peter Wood, who often has lacrosse players in his course on Native Americans (who invented the game), complained that team members sometimes signed in to class and then walked out, without bothering to sit down.
Strutting lacrosse players are a distinctive and familiar breed on elite campuses along the Eastern Seaboard. Because the game until recently was played mostly at prep schools and in upper-middle-class communities on New York's Long Island and outside Baltimore, the players tend to be at once macho and entitled, a sometimes unfortunate combination. They can often be seen driving in SUVs with LAX decals, their dirty-white college ball caps turned around, a pinch of Skoal in their mouths.
The two players arrested last week fit the rich-kid stereotype, though they were praised by neighbors and teachers as exemplary young men. Seligmann's father works in finance; the family lives in a stately brick Georgian in Essex Fells, N.J., assessed at $1.35 million in 2005. Seligmann, who was recruited by Harvard and Princeton as well as Duke, was described by Essex Fells Mayor Ed Abbot as "in many ways a role model to all the boys." Finnerty's father is a Wall Street financier with a $2 million Dutch colonial next to the Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club and a $4.3 million summer home in West Hampton Beach, complete with motorboat and tennis court. Finnerty is said to be soft-spoken, a team player, reserved, even passive, though a bit of a wise guy. Last November, he and two high-school teammates were arrested for jumping and punching a pair of recent college grads on a street in Washington, D.C.'s preppy Georgetown, well after midnight. Finnerty and his mates had taunted their victims by calling them "gay." (Finnerty agreed to perform community service to avoid being formally charged. It is unclear if the rape arrest will affect that case.)
The antics of the lacrosse team had attracted the notice of administrators at Duke, both for raucous tailgating parties before football games and a high rate of campus misdemeanors, like public underage drinking (15 of the 47 players on the roster have been cited by police at some point in the last three years). The players on Duke's high-profile basketball team have tutors and minders and must attend study halls. The lacrosse players, like most other athletes at Duke, are by and large left alone. Still, university officials told the Duke lacrosse team's coach, Mike Pressler, that he needed to keep an eye on the off-field activities of his players. On the other hand, Pressler, who took his team to the finals of the national championships last year, was given a three-year contract. (Pressler, who declined to comment, resigned three weeks ago.)
The Duke lacrosse team was off to a good start this spring, ranked No. 2 in the nation, when the players decided to have a special evening on the night of March 13. The captains renting 610 North Buchanan hired a pair of strippers for $400 apiece from a local escort service. According to a Durham police affidavit, the lacrosse players misled the "exotic dancers," saying the party was for just a few track and baseball players. (One Durham escort service told news-week it does not like to provide dancers to student parties because they can get out of hand.) About 40 lacrosse players showed up; a photo taken at around 11 p.m. shows them happily partying.
According to a timeline put out by defense lawyers, one exotic dancer, Kim Roberts, 31, appeared on time, but another dancer, who was dropped off by a car, arrived a half hour late. (The woman is a 27-year-old single mother of two; NEWSWEEK, like most news organizations, does not identify alleged rape victims.) According to Roberts, who was interviewed last week by NEWSWEEK, the boys gave each of them mixed drinks. Roberts says she did not drink hers, but the other dancer did, knocking her cup over after finishing half her drink, then imbibing Roberts's.
Roberts said that she thought the other woman arrived sober. But when the two began their strip show around midnight, the other woman began having trouble. "She started stumbling," recalled Roberts. "When I think back on it, she had a glassy look in her eyes." Roberts says she "gave her a look that said, 'C'mon, girl, what's going on?' "—but got no response. The dance lasted about 10 minutes, according to Roberts; the defense lawyers say it lasted only about three minutes. (The women, who did not know each other, were supposed to put on a roughly two-hour show for the $800.)
All sides agree that one of the partygoers called out to the women asking if they had brought any sex toys. According to defense lawyers, there was some anatomically crude banter between one of the women and the audience, but then one of the boys, holding a broom handle, yelled out, "Use this!" That was enough for Roberts; she and the other woman ended the show. A photo taken at 12:03 shows the dancers turning away; the boys no longer look happy.
According to the defense timeline, the two women went into the bathroom—alone—and locked the door. For about 20 minutes, the defense lawyers say, the boys cajoled and pleaded with the women to come out, at one point slipping money under the door. Finally, the women emerged and went out to Roberts's car. In a photo taken at 12:30, the other woman is standing on the back stoop, carrying what looks like a purse and a makeup bag. She appears to be smiling. At 12:37, she can be seen lying on her side on the stoop; her ankle is bleeding, her elbow is scraped and two drops of blood appear on her thigh. At 12:41, a final photo shows the woman in the front seat of Roberts's car; one of the guys appears to be helping her in.
At some point, a next-door neighbor intermittently watching this scene unfold heard the woman say she forgot her shoe, and saw her walk back toward the house. The neighbor also heard heated words about money, possibly a dispute over pay. He also heard several boys milling around, saying, "Let's go."
The evening ended in recriminations. The defense lawyers say that Roberts mocked the boys' manhood; Roberts says the boys called her a "n-----." The neighbor heard one of the boys yell, "Hey b----, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt." Roberts called 911 and complained to police that some students at 610 North Buchanan were taunting her and her friend with racial epithets. She told NEWSWEEK that she yelled out at the boys, "I called the cops, you dumbasses."
The transcript of the 911 call makes it sound as though she and the other dancer were just passersby being racially insulted by students. "I was angry and I had to tell somebody," says Roberts. "I didn't want everyone to know I'm a dancer." During her interview with NEWSWEEK, she disputed the defense timeline, but she would not go on the record to be specific about the discrepancies.
At first, Roberts says she did not think the other dancer had been raped. She was mad at the other stripper, who was almost passed out in the car and not talking. Roberts said she had not collected all the money owed them for the dance, and she wondered if the other dancer was somehow hustling her. She drove to a local Kroger supermarket and told the security guard there that she had a woman in her car who could barely move. The police arrived and radioed back to the dispatcher that the woman was "passed-out drunk" but otherwise appeared unharmed.
Police logs show that the woman was taken to the Duke hospital at 2:31 a.m., after a stop at a substance-abuse center, and that she claimed she had been raped. She was examined by a sexual-assault nurse and likely given a battery of blood and urine tests. According to Nifong, a hospital report later showed that her injuries and emotional state were consistent with having been raped. According to a police affidavit, she later claimed she had been held down, beaten, strangled, and raped vaginally, anally and orally. She identified the first names of three men at the lacrosse party, but said the players were using different names at different times (none of the first names in the police affidavit match the first names of the two players indicted last week).
Police also questioned Roberts. It is not clear what she told them, or whether her statement to police matches her later statements to NEWSWEEK and other media outlets. Roberts did say that, within several days of the incident, she went to James D. (Butch) Williams, a prominent local attorney, to ask his advice. She says that from the outset Williams told her that he already represented one of the Duke players. Williams asked if she believed there had been a rape, and Roberts answered no. But when Williams tried to get her to sign an affidavit, she balked. She said she later became livid when she heard that Williams had shared her story with other attorneys. Seeing Williams's face appear on a TV during her interview with NEWSWEEK, she stood up and began punching the air in anger at him. "I feel like he preyed on my naiveté," she told NEWSWEEK. "I don't want someone to play me like I'm stupid."
Roberts says she changed her mind about whether the other woman had been raped. (She is careful to say that her version of events has not changed—just her opinion of what might have happened when the woman was out of her sight.) She was affected by news of the medical report. She had not noticed any swelling in the face of the other woman, but her lawyer told her that facial swelling often takes a couple of hours to show.
Roberts, who dropped out of UNC after she became pregnant and began exotic dancing only last year, may have had other motives to change her conclusion. On April 19, she e-mailed 5W Public Relations in New York, which represents the rapper Lil' Kim (the dancer says she is a huge fan of Lil' Kim's). The e-mail begins, "Hi! My name is Kim and I am involved in the Duke Lacrosse scandal." She goes on, "Although I am no celebrity and just an average citizen, I've found myself at the center of one of the biggest stories in the country. I'm worried about letting this opportunity pass me by without making the best of it and was wondering if you had any advice as to how to spin this to my advantage."
The PR agency released the e-mail to the press. According to the Associated Press, which interviewed Roberts, she "took umbrage at the notion that she should not try to make something out of her experience. She's worried that once her name and criminal record are public, no one will want to hire her. 'Why shouldn't I profit from it?' she asked. 'I didn't ask to be in this position ... I would like to feed my daughter'."
Court records obtained by AP and by NEWSWEEK show that Kim Roberts was on probation from a 2001 conviction for embezzling $25,000 from a photofinishing company where she worked, helping to keep payroll records. On March 22, eight days after the alleged rape, Kim spent two hours in jail for breaking the terms of her probation (she had left the state, her attorney says, to visit her sick father). She posted $25,000 bond and on March 30 found a lawyer, Mark Simeon.
Simeon is not a big-time lawyer. He handles mostly traffic violations and routine criminal matters in the Durham courts. But he is politically active—in 2002 he ran for district attorney and lost. He sees Roberts's case as an opportunity for him, too. "I will be there for her if and when she decides to pursue legal remedies on her own behalf," he says. And he wants to put together a team to represent the alleged rape victim in another civil suit, in order to, he says, "help make her whole." He has asked an associate to contact Willie E. Gary, a well-known Florida lawyer. Simeon told NEWSWEEK, "[My mother's] proud of seeing me on TV but she'd like to see that translated into something tangible. It's not so I can dress like a powerful lawyer. I've struggled since that last election."
Simeon has a relationship with prosecutor Nifong that may shed light on the D.A.'s handling of the case. Nifong was the protégé of Simeon's rival in the 2002 race for D.A. Simeon and Nifong did not get along, according to Simeon. But last year, Nifong's boss, Jim Hardin, was appointed to a judgeship, and Nifong was appointed to fill his place. Nifong's term is almost up, and in Durham, district attorney is an elected post. The voters go to the polls in one week, on May 2. One of Nifong's opponents is a lawyer named Freda Black, who was passed over for the D.A. job. Black is—or was, until the Duke case—better known around town than Nifong, largely because she won a conviction in a celebrated murder case. Nifong's other opponent is a lawyer with no prosecutorial experience named Keith Bishop. Nifong and Black are white; Bishop is African-American. Durham voters are about 40 percent black, so Nifong almost surely needs to win black votes to keep his job.
Shortly after Nifong decided to run, he began reaching out to Simeon. He went to an NAACP banquet and crossed the room to extend his hand in peace to Simeon. On March 28—the day after Nifong first spoke out in the Duke case, publicly chastising the players for not coming forward to volunteer information about the alleged rape—Simeon told Nifong he would support him. He invited Nifong to speak at his church, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist, and introduced him to the African-American congregation as a man who had always been a "good prosecutor," but who, Simeon said he had recently learned, was also a "good man."
That was on April 9. A week later Simeon asked Nifong to go to court to relieve Kim of the obligation of paying the bail-bond fees, arguing that she was no longer a "flight risk." Nifong agreed, as did the judge. Simeon told NEWSWEEK he went before the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a very influential group, and urged them to vote for Nifong. Simeon says he has also been giving Nifong fashion advice, telling him to lose the plaid shirts and to start wearing black suits, light shirts and power ties. Women like power, Simeon says he told Nifong.
After giving about 70 interviews when the case first broke in the press a month ago, Nifong is no longer saying much to reporters. Nor, it appears, is he doing much talking to lawyers for the defense. On April 13, Nifong met with three defense lawyers, Bill Thomas, Butch Williams and Wade Smith. According to Williams, when the lawyers got into exculpatory evidence, like the photos, Nifong essentially cut them off, saying that he knew much more about the case than they would ever know, and that he intended to indict two players.
On April 18, when the two players were arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping and more vaguely defined sexual offenses, Seligmann's lawyer, Kirk Osborn, went to Nifong's office to try to speak to him. "I thought, 'Surely he'll talk to me'," said Osborn, who has known Nifong for 25 years. But after Osborn had waited for 20 minutes, Nifong's assistant emerged with a message, according to Osborn: "Mr. Nifong says that he saw you on TV declaring your client totally innocent, so what is there to talk about?"
Nifong did not respond to NEWSWEEK's requests for comment. Durham lawyers interviewed by NEWSWEEK describe him as an experienced prosecutor who has tried more than 300 felony cases, including rape and murder. He is usually well prepared, not flashy, and he was regarded as forthcoming by defense lawyers. "There were no surprises with Mike," says Brian Aus, who has known Nifong for 21 years and tried murder cases against him.
Some lawyers wonder if Nifong did not get in a little over his head when the TV trucks began arriving in Durham. "There's some feeling that he jumped out too far and too fast with his public exposure about the case and his involvement," said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University (where the alleged rape victim is enrolled). "He was vouching for how strong the case was, and he was obviously wounded when the DNA tests came back."
At the time, Nifong appeared defensive and made remarks that seemed outrageous to defense lawyers, like his suggestion "I would not be surprised if condoms were used." Nifong is up against a formidable defense team, a network of a dozen or so lawyers representing the lacrosse players. The families of the players can afford top legal talent, and the lawyers have moved quickly and shrewdly in the inevitable media wars. The latest example is a flap over the accuser's photo identifications.
Last week someone leaked a 15-page prosecutor's report detailing the way the accuser had identified her alleged assailants. She had been shown a PowerPoint presentation of the photos of 46 team members. According to numerous news accounts, the report says the woman was 100 percent certain that Reade Seligmann forced her to perform oral sex on him and that she was equally certain that Collin Finnerty raped and sodomized her. She was reported to be 90 percent certain that a third man, not named, was also involved in some unspecified way. (A source familiar with the prosecution's case told NEWSWEEK that the woman broke down and cried when she identified one of the two players indicted last week.)
The defense lawyers immediately seized on the fact that the prosecutor's lineup procedure was unorthodox, and argued that they would move to get it thrown out of court. Normally, rape victims choose from a lineup of a large number of photos, with the suspect mixed in with people known to be uninvolved. With no other option than lacrosse players, the lawyers are arguing, the alleged victim had no choice but to pick two or three of the players, or appear uncertain.
The intricate legal dance—and the media jamboree—is likely to drag on. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has predictably entered the fray, offering to pray with the victim and pay her college tuition. On the Internet, sports-equipment producers are reporting a sudden surge in sales of Duke lacrosse jerseys. At the university, some soul searching is underway. At a "Conversation on Campus Culture" inside the cavernous chapel, a Duke administrator, reading from a student blog, asked whether Duke is intentionally or unintentionally promoting "a culture of crassness at the expense of a culture of character." But attendance seemed sparse, with maybe 250 people present, relatively few of them students. "The median age of the audience as I look out is older than I'd hoped it would be," said Duke's president, Richard Brodhead. It is hard to know just how deep the culture of crassness runs at Duke, but one wonders after reading an e-mail sent from one of the lacrosse players' address an hour or so after the party. The author of the e-mail told his buddies he wanted to hire some strippers and skin them and kill them while he ejaculated in his "Duke-issue spandex." The e-mail was said by team members to be a joking reference to the movie "American Psycho."
Across town, at NCCU, the mostly black college where the alleged victim is enrolled, students seemed bitterly resigned to the players' beating the rap. "This is a race issue," said Candice Shaw, 20. "People at Duke have a lot of money on their side." Chan Hall, 22, said, "It's the same old story. Duke up, Central down." Hall said he wanted to see the Duke students prosecuted "whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past." (On a bulletin board in the student lounge was a long list of students with grades high enough to qualify for the Golden Key International Honour Society. On the list was the name of the alleged rape victim.)
At the Church of Apostolic Revival International, Bishop John Bennett worried about civil unrest "if people don't think the victim is treated fairly." He gestured outside his East Durham church to the hardscrabble neighborhood outside. "This area is the area they need to be praying about." As town and gown collide, this much is certain: amid the confusion, there is plenty of cause for prayer, from the fringes of Durham to the heart of Duke.
With Andrew Murr and Daren Briscoe in Durham, and Arian Campo-Flores, Andrew Romano and Steve Tuttle