Friday, November 8, 2013

The Supreme Court Denies Appeal from Wrongfully Accused Duke Lacrosse Players

The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from three Duke Lacrosse players who were wrongfully accused of rape in March 2006.  David Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann filed a lawsuit against the City of Durham, North Carolina, holding it responsible for pursuing the rape charges against them without probable cause.  The charges stemmed from false allegations made by Crystal Mangum, a stripper hired to perform at a team party held on March 13, 2006.  Without any evidentiary basis, Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann were indicted for Mangum’s alleged rape.[1]  The Supreme Court’s recent refusal to hear their appeal marks the end of the players’ civil rights lawsuit.  Consequently, the Court’s refusal leaves many unanswered questions about the prosecutorial and police misconduct that occurred during the case.

Michael Nifong was the Durham District Attorney behind the unjust prosecution of Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann.  Around the same time that Crystal Mangum’s rape allegations surfaced, Nifong was facing the pressures of re-election.  In order to win, Nifong desperately needed the votes of Durham’s black community, who were outraged by Mangum’s story.  Nifong saw the rape case as the perfect opportunity to win their votes, and he quickly made it the center of his campaign.[2]  With a clear motive compelling him, Nifong began a ruthless attack on the lacrosse players, indifferent to the truth.

Nifong blatantly violated his ethical obligations as a prosecutor throughout the case.  First, there was no probable cause to charge the lacrosse players with rape, since evidence supporting Crystal Mangum’s story was almost non-existent.  The Supreme Court defines probable cause as “…a reasonable ground for belief of guilt.”  In the Duke case, there was no DNA or other physical evidence linking the defendants to the victim, and the sole basis of Mangum’s claims were her inconsistent versions of events, which changed multiple times.[3]  This evidence was insufficient to establish a reasonable belief that the players were guilty, but Nifong pursued the case anyway.

Nifong also violated his Brady obligation, which precludes a prosecutor from withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense that is material to the outcome of the case.  Not only did Nifong withhold evidence that showed Mangum’s inconsistencies in identifying her rapists, but he also withheld DNA results that revealed no match of any lacrosse player in or around Mangum hours after the alleged rape.[4]  In both instances, the evidence withheld was material to the outcome of the case.  Mangum’s inconsistencies seriously undermined her credibility, and the DNA results were almost conclusive proof of the players’ innocence.  Nifong also made extrajudicial statements to the public proclaiming the lacrosse players’ guilt, even though he knew the facts did not support the claim.  Based on Nifong’s repeated misconduct, he clearly had no interest in presenting the truth and pursuing justice.

The Duke Lacrosse case illustrates prosecutorial misconduct at its worst.  Nifong had tremendous power over the lives of the accused as the elected District Attorney, since no one was going to challenge his discretion.   Instead of using his power to seek justice, he abused it to further his own motives.  Fortunately, Nifong’s misconduct was exposed, and Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann were declared innocent.  Accordingly, Nifong was disbarred and disgraced by the legal community.  However in many cases, prosecutorial misconduct is never exposed, probably because it happens behind closed doors.  Most of the time, defense attorneys are unaware the misconduct is going on, especially with regards to Brady violations.  A possible solution to this problem could be mandatory “open discovery laws” in all jurisdictions, which would require prosecutors to turn over all evidence in their case files to the defense.  

Another concern regarding prosecutorial misconduct is the fact that it is often intertwined with police misconduct.  Clearly, Nifong did not act alone during the Duke case.  Durham police officers and investigators directly contributed to the injustices of this case.  However, many of their identities are still unknown, as well as certain details of their scheme.  Sadly, the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the players’ civil lawsuit means many of these facts will remain unknown.

Samantha Beyda
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Image by Ravs62687 at the English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Stuart Taylor Jr. & K.C. Johnson, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case 96-97 (St. Martin’s Press, 1st ed. 2008). 
[2] Id. at 84-85.
[3] Id. at 36-38. 
[4] Id. at 162-163. 


  1. North Carolina lacks even the most rudimentary protections for defendants. No transcripts are kept of Grand Jury hearings; and a person indicted by a Grand Jury forfeits the right to a probable cause hearing. After being arrested, the accused in the lacrosse case were never once, over the course of a year, questioned by police, nor were they asked to give a statement.

    Nifong repeatedly refused offers to examine evidence proffered by the defense (as did Duke President Richard Brodhead), thus preserving “plausible deniability”.

    Nifong claimed to have never interrogated Mangum until ten months into the case.

    IOW, the accused were never able to get their evidence before the court.

    Nor could they get a Bill of Particulars. Nifong refused to say exactly when the rape occurred; or in which bathroom; or who did what. He had to overcome the fact that two of the accused were not present during any of the time periods necessary for them to have raped Mangum.

    North Carolina has no effective Speedy Trial law. Defendants have been held for years in pre-trial confinement and this is not considered a violation of their right to a speedy trial (Spivey v. NC). The power this gives a prosecutor to force plea bargains is immense.

    Nifong claimed he only needed to convince twelve people of the guilt of the accused; and having done his best to make them hated by the jury pool, he had only to provide the slimmest of rationales for the jury to vote them guilty of at least some kind of charges.
    Thus, in America in the 21st century, it is possible to be convicted and sent to prison for a crime not only of which you are not guilty, but which never happened.

    Nifong did not act alone; police and city officials were also complicit. But so also are the laws of North Carolina, which, if they are not reformed, will permit future such injustices to future defendants.

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