This again? We were blitzed with the Duke University lacrosse scandal in 2006. And, it seems, we’re still not done with it.
William D. Cohan’s exhaustive, surprisingly gripping retelling of the episode, The Price of Silence, proves its worthiness. When the story broke, it had plenty of salacious aspects. An African-American stripper had accused three white Duke lacrosse players of raping her at a party at which she and another woman had been hired to perform. “You had me at stripper,” you can imagine editors and cable news producers thinking. (I covered the story for Newsweek and some of my reporting is cited in Cohan’s book.)
But the story turned out to be much more complex, a drama made rich by the characters’ apparent refusal to play their assigned roles. At the start, we heard that some of the lacrosse players (though not the ones who would be indicted) had yelled racial slurs at the two women that night and made threatening remarks about using a broomstick. The accuser was a struggling single mother and a student at the historically black college across the tracks from Duke, a US$44,000-a-year institution known as the gothic wonderland. But, in the end, there was no credible evidence of an assault: Did that make the privileged athletes the victims?
The story’s North Carolina setting provided another twist. In a part of the country where white men had once raped black women with impunity, now, a white man — District Attorney Mike B. Nifong — faced overwhelming political pressure to bring charges on behalf of a black woman.
Cohan hasn’t unearthed new evidence. There is still nothing credible to back up the account of an unreliable witness. But this by no means takes away from the impact of the remarkable story that the book has to tell.
Cohan has added a lot of new details to the narrative. Senior Duke administrators are said to have been desperate to have the basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, speak out in support of the embattled school. But a board member suggested to him that he not get involved — advice he heeded. Nifong, meanwhile, is described as using his hands to cover his ears when some of the defense lawyers offer to open their files and share what they’ve discovered about their clients.
One of the few people to come off as trustworthy here is a young police investigator, Benjamin Himan. When the state Attorney General Roy Cooper took over the case from Nifong and dropped the charges against the players, he took the extraordinary step of declaring them “innocent” but refused to make his files public. Himan, who had been assigned to the case early on and worked closely with Cooper’s investigators, tells Cohan that there was significant evidence that proved the story of the accuser, Crystal Mangum, wrong. He says that he had come to believe that she “was not telling the truth about anything.” Asked at the time if he thought Mangum was mentally unstable, Cooper said his investigators believed that “she believed many of the stories she was telling.”
It’s an extremely impressive feat for Cohan to have strung all of the pieces in this story together, but he hasn’t done so with much artistry or evident regard for relevancy. He enlightens us about Nifong’s father’s nickname; what classes Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, took as a freshman at Yale; and where Brodhead’s wife grew up.