From the NYT:
"North Carolina’s attorney general declared three former Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper innocent of all charges on Wednesday, ending a prosecution that provoked bitter debate over race, class and the tactics of the Durham County district attorney.
The attorney general, Roy A. Cooper, said the players — Reade W. Seligmann, David F. Evans, and Collin Finnerty — had been wrongly accused by an “unchecked” and “overreaching” district attorney who had ignored contradictory evidence and instead relied on the stripper’s “faulty and unreliable” accusations.
“We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” Mr. Cooper said at a news conference.
“We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred,” he added.
Mr. Cooper said he had considered but ultimately rejected the possibility of bringing criminal charges against the accuser, who continues to insist she was attacked at a team party on March 13, 2006, and asked him to go forward with the case. Mr. Cooper said his investigators had told him that the woman “may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling.” He said his decision not to charge her with making false accusations was also based on a review of sealed court files, which include records of the woman’s mental health history.
Mr. Cooper reserved his harshest criticism for the Durham County district attorney, Michael B. Nifong, at one point even depicting him as a “rogue prosecutor.”
“In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked,” said Mr. Cooper, who took over the case in January. “There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado. And in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”"
It's striking that the Attorney General didn't just say that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case, but that the three were innocent. On the dismissal notices, the explanation for the dismissal is: "The reinvestigation of this matter indicates that this individual is innocent of the charges brought against him and in the interest of justice these charges are dismissed."
I'm trying to imagine what it must be like to be falsely accused of rape in a high-profile, politically charged case, and to have both that accusation and the threat of 30 years in prison hanging over you for a year, but frankly, I can't.
This is why it matters that we have warrants and indictments and trials with a presumption of innocence: so that people like these three young men have a chance to defend themselves, and to require that the state prove its case against them. It is why I write about Guantanamo: there are people there whom I believe to be innocent, but everyone there should have a fair hearing in court. This is important not just for them, but for us: we should always try to be a country where justice is done, and people are not just thrown in jail or disappeared. And we should try especially hard when others are tempted to forget about the possibility that some of those who have been accused might be innocent. It's also why I agree with Reade Seligman, one of the lacrosse players, when he said this:
"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If it is possible for law enforcement officials to systematically railroad us with no evidence whatsoever, it is frightening to think what they could do to those who do not to have the resources to defend themselves. So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes, or creating political and racial conflicts, we must all take a step back from this case and learn from it. This tragedy has revealed that our society has lost sight of the core principle of our legal system, the presumption of innocence."
These three young men had the resources to get very good defense lawyers. Most people don't. That we do not adequately fund public defenders' offices in this country should be a source of shame: spending years of your life in prison, and having your good name destroyed, is just as much of a tragedy and an injustice when it befalls people who do not go to good universities or have parents who are well off. Good for Seligman for making this point.
"NBC News dropped Don Imus yesterday, canceling his talk show on its MSNBC cable news channel a week after he made a racially disparaging remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. (...)
Numerous advertisers said yesterday that they would refuse to sponsor the show in the future. Among the advertisers were General Motors, American Express, Sprint Nextel, GlaxoSmithKline, TD Ameritrade and Ditech.com."
What the Imus episode and the Duke lacrosse case have in common is that in both cases, people seem to have forgotten that they were dealing with actual human beings. Don Imus was just doing (what I gather is) his normal schtick. I don't suppose he was actually thinking: here are a group of young women who have taken their team to the NCAA championships; I wonder how I can completely ruin what ought to be one of the greatest days of their lives? They probably just weren't that real to him. Similarly, though much more damagingly, I don't suppose that Mike Nifong said to himself: I wonder how I can do something truly awful to some Duke lacrosse players? He probably just got caught up in the politics of it, and forgot about justice. Likewise, there were altogether too many commenters -- probably on both sides -- for whom this case was just an occasion for a canned political rant, not one that involved actual human beings.
I think that getting so caught up in what you're doing that you forget that you're dealing with actual human beings is one of the most morally dangerous things there is. It's easy to see how it happens; we're all vulnerable to this. But forcing yourself to remember the human beings on the other side, especially when it's tempting not to, is absolutely essential. And it's equally essential to remember that however closely a story seems to fit your favorite preconceived narrative, you can't know that it does fit without evidence. The world does not exist to reinforce our preconceptions.
Luckily, in these cases, justice seems to have prevailed. But we can never just assume that it will. We have to work to make it so, if we want our country to be just.