Duke lacrosse case stirs tensions along class, race, gender lines
BY THOMAS FITZGERALD
Knight Ridder Newspapers
DURHAM, N.C. - Carrying a cardboard placard, Sue McMurray bore witness alone in front of the now-infamous "Lacrosse House" yards from the East Campus of Duke University on Thursday afternoon. "We Believe Her," the sign said.
Other signs plastered on the porch railing of the shabby white-frame house disagreed. "Innocent Until Proven Guilty," one said.
It was in this house, prosecutors say, that late on March 13, a black female student from nearby North Carolina Central University, hired as an exotic dancer for a team party, was raped, beaten and choked by three white men who taunted her with racist names.
The incident, with its volatile mixture of race, class privilege and sex, has sharpened the long-simmering tensions between an affluent university that is among the nation's academic elite and a working-class town with a large African American population.
"I don't want to see this young woman steamrolled," said McMurray, 71, a retired teacher who lives in Durham. "She can easily be manipulated as crazy or intoxicated or that she `wanted' it. Powerful people have already begun the process of shading the truth."
As she spoke, a woman leaned out the window of a passing SUV and yelled: "She sold herself for money!"
Police have not yet filed charges, and the captains of the lacrosse team - who rented the house - have issued a statement calling the rape allegations "totally and transparently false."
Yet vigils and protests on campus have erupted almost daily since the investigation came to light March 24. Last Wednesday, for instance, activists distributed "wanted" flyers featuring photos of lacrosse players as hundreds marched to mark the annual Take Back the Night observance against rape.
Duke's president suspended the lacrosse season last week, but also cautioned that the players are presumed innocent. Some people accuse the university of being slow to respond and say that the lacrosse players should speak up about what happened. So far, they have said virtually nothing.
Prosecutors obtained a court order compelling 46 of the 47 team members to give DNA samples and have their torsos photographed (The prosecutors did not give the test to the 47th player because he is black and the woman has sworn that the attackers were white.) Results of the DNA test are due next week. Meanwhile, the players scrimmaged on a Duke practice field late Friday afternoon. Duke is a national lacrosse power and is ranked sixth in the country.
None of the lacrosse players has spoken to reporters, and the two team members from the Philadelphia region - star defenseman Tony McDevitt of Philadelphia and defenseman Erik Henkelman of Swarthmore - could not be reached.
Steven Henkelman, Erik's father, said in a telephone interview on Saturday that the team members were innocent.
"Everybody involved has been devastated," Steven Henkelman said. "All the players are confident that the DNA tests will exonerate them, and we stand behind all our boys."
He declined to say whether his son was at the party the night of the alleged incident. Although he and the other parents are confident that the men will be cleared, "the damage has been done for these guys. The stain won't go away," Henkelman said.
According to court documents, the accuser told police:
She and another dancer started their routines, and a crowd of about 40 men became "excited and aggressive," so they left. But some of the men coaxed them back inside. The accuser said she was then forced into a bathroom - was told, "You're not leaving, sister" - and was then raped by three men for 30 minutes before she fled. Police said the dancer was robbed of a cell phone and cash, which were recovered in a search.
Next-door neighbor Jason Bissey, 26, said Thursday that he was on his porch that night. He said that he saw men milling around in the yard and heard racial epithets. "I heard some talk about money, like `I want my money back.' " As the dancers sped off in a car, Bissey said, one of the men yelled: "Thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt!"
Bissey, a grill chef at Pop's Restaurant who is white, said he was not surprised. "This is the South, so there's a lot of history here," he said. "There are plantations just outside of town. People still self-segregate. It's an old story."
Duke's projected tuition, room and board for this year is $41,240, about the median income in Durham, a city of 187,000 that was a former textile and tobacco center.
The city has almost as many blacks as whites - 44 percent to 45 percent, according to the 2000 census. The university says its student body is 10.8 percent black.
"You have some people that still refer to the university as `The Plantation,' " said Michael Palmer, Duke's director of community affairs, who is African American and a former county official. "But there's a complex, intertwined relationship between Duke and Durham, both positive and negative."
For instance, he said, local residents talk of lifesaving care at the medical center. The university also leases one-third of Durham's office space and is a major engine in the local economy, responsible for $2.6 billion annually, according to a 2004 study.
Since 1996, Duke has sponsored a $12 million neighborhood-partnership program that has provided tutoring in the public schools, after-school programs, health clinics, and at least 80 units of affordable housing in poor areas of the city.
"This incident is significant in that it exposes tensions and anger, but ... the relationships we have built will continue well after the media leave," Palmer said.
A temporary city of satellite trucks, electronic cables and bright lights has sprung up on the greensward in front of the Gothic tower of the Duke Chapel, to feed the appetite of the 24-hour cable networks.
"It has been the topic of the last few weeks," said freshman Michael Renner, 19, of Belmont, Mass. "If it happened, it's an absolute atrocity, but it's important for people to reserve judgment until actual evidence comes forward."
He said that he has a couple of good friends on the lacrosse team who weren't at the party - "They're absolute stand-up guys" - and was worried that they would be stigmatized.
Some students said the events were embarrassing to Duke. "Admissions decisions are being made now, and people who are accepted are deciding whether to come here," said Daniel Stroth, 19, a freshman from London. "It reflects badly on all of us, even though it was the actions of a couple of people."
Last week also was sexual assault prevention week at Duke. "Something like this takes away that sense of security" and provokes "fear and anger," said Donna Lisker, director of the Duke Women's Center and a native of Lafayette Hill, Pa. She said the center saw a spike in the number of women asking for help last week.
At the historically black North Carolina Central University across town, students also were buzzing.
"They're getting off the hook - at least they should be in custody," said Ebony Davenport, 20, a junior biology major from Baltimore. "I think, if you have money, you can get away with pretty much anything."
Said Malorie Howard, a 19-year-old freshman from Oxford, N.C.: "A lot of students feel that if it was our football players at a party and a white girl from Duke came over here and got raped, they'd already be locked up."
No one interviewed knew the victim, a 27-year-old mother of two.
Lawyers for the lacrosse players say that District Attorney Michael Nifong, appointed to the post last year and facing a challenge for the Democratic nomination in the May primary, had convicted the men with his frequent public comments. They said that the DNA evidence would exonerate their clients.
"I'm in a position where my client has to prove a negative - and we don't do that in this system," said Kerry Sutton, who is representing team captain Matt Zash. She said that Zash was watching "Late Show With David Letterman'' in his room and did not hear anything from the bathroom. Zash volunteered to give a DNA sample even before the court order and offered to take a polygraph test, which prosecutors rejected, Sutton said.
Durham lawyer Tom Loflin, a veteran member of the defense bar, said that the order to give DNA samples was illegal because it was too broad, aimed at 46 men. Any evidence that comes from the tests could be suppressed, he said.
"It was a huge fishing expedition, a dragnet," said Loflin, who is not involved in the case. "It's election season."
Nifong did not respond to calls, but he has said that he has other evidence, such as the woman's injuries, to prove sexual assault. The prosecutor has threatened to charge players who are not speaking to investigators as accomplices.
As a network reporter prepared to do her sixth stand-up report of the day Thursday, Duke student Jonathan Port rolled his eyes.
Although he said "the outrage is justified," he and other students are eager for a resolution.
"People here on campus are tired of hearing updates that have no substance," said Port, a junior philosophy major from Chicago.