This Day In History: March 28

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Duke University officials suspend the men’s lacrosse team for two games following allegations that team members sexually assaulted a stripper hired to perform at a party. Three players were later charged with rape. The case became a national scandal, impacted by issues of race, politics and class.

In April 2007, all charges against the young men were dropped due to lack of credible evidence and the district attorney was eventually disbarred for his mishandling of the case.

On March 13, 2006, the Duke lacrosse team held a party at an off-campus house and hired two strippers to perform. The following day, one of the dancers, Crystal Mangum, told police in Durham, North Carolina, that three white lacrosse players forced her into a bathroom and raped her. On March 23, the team’s 46 white members provided police with DNA samples and were photographed. On March 28, Duke suspended the team for two games; soon after, their coach was forced to resign and the school’s president cancelled the rest of the lacrosse season. On April 10, defense attorneys revealed that DNA test results showed no match between the players and the accuser. Nevertheless, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong vowed to continue investigating the case. On April 17, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann were charged with rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. On May 12, defense attorneys announced a second round of tests found no evidence of any player’s DNA on the accuser’s body or clothing on the night of the party. On May 15, a third lacrosse player, David Evans, the team captain, was indicted on charges of rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. 

The case raised issues of class and race because the accuser was a poor, Black, single mother from the Durham area and the three lacrosse players were out-of-staters from affluent backgrounds. Nifong, who was running for district attorney when the rape allegations were first made, was accused of aggressively pursuing the case to gain favor with Durham’s African American community. Additionally, the case sparked a national debate about the behavior of college athletes.

In late December 2006, the accuser altered several key details of her story and Nifong dropped the rape charges but kept the kidnapping and sexual offense counts in place. On December 28, the North Carolina State Bar Association filed a prosecutorial misconduct complaint against Nifong. In January 2007, Nifong, facing growing criticism, asked North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to take over the case. In April of that year, the attorney general announced Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann had been wrongly accused and dismissed all charges against them. Nifong was heavily criticized for his rush to judgment and his heavy reliance on the faulty testimony of the accuser. He was disbarred in June and later convicted of criminal contempt for making misleading statements to a judge. The three accused players received an undisclosed financial settlement from Duke University and later filed a lawsuit against Nifong, the city of Durham and the investigating police officers.

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