Voters to weigh in on Duke lacrosse case

DURHAM, N.C. -- Mike Nifong says he picked neither "the crime" nor "the time," but he can't avoid the conjunction of his prosecution of the Duke lacrosse case and his bid to remain Durham County's district attorney. The scandal has become a significant issue in the May 2 primary. For six weeks now, it has inflamed conversation not only in Durham, where politics and the case are running in tandem, but across the country as well. The fever pitch has taken a toll here, and it likely will be felt in the voting booths Tuesday.

Since the Raleigh News & Observer published an interview in March with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by three members of Duke's nationally ranked lacrosse team, the Bull City has been a cauldron for debate on myriad sociological phenomena. In a way few could have expected, Durham in 2006 has become what Los Angeles was during the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson -- the canvas on which those with interest in issues of race, class and gender can paint a picture with whatever colors suit them, as well as the setting for a mystery rich enough to fill a two-hour episode of "Law and Order."

The tension, anger, and anxiety in town and on campus have been all-consuming now for a month and a half. The pressure is especially intense at Duke, where the strain of dealing with the case and its negative publicity has begun to affect the university's faculty recruiting. Two professors told ESPN.com that progress in the nuances of the academic hiring process, such as making accommodations for spouses and children of new hires, has moved more slowly than in previous years, and they cite the scandal as the cause.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a sort of fatigue seems to have set in over the region in the last couple of weeks. After all that's happened, the showers that dampened Wednesday's annual celebration of the last day of class seemed to rain down as much metaphorical significance as meteorological reality.

By now, even casual observers are burned out from the barrage of rumor, innuendo, outrage and spin that has dominated lives of residents. Indeed, there have been no easy answers to the big and hard questions. How to make sense of things? How to balance the nation's perception of Durham with the reality of life here? And now, how to deal with the possibility that Tuesday's election results conceivably could end the investigation without a trial? That might close off any further exploration and disclosure of just what exactly happened at 610 North Buchanan Blvd. as March 13 became March 14.

With bold proclamations in the days after the news broke, Nifong made himself as central to this story as anyone who attended the now-infamous house party on a Monday night in mid-March.

On the day the DNA results came back from the lab and provided no link between any of the lacrosse players and the alleged victim, Nifong's opponents in the Democratic primary, Freda Black and Keith Bishop, allowed the incumbent to explain himself at a forum at North Carolina Central University. Since then, they have charged that he has politicized the lacrosse investigation and fostered divisions in Durham, while Nifong has stonewalled requests for public comment on the case's particulars.

In his defense, Nifong has pointed to how the polarity of the case makes it impossible to please enough people to sway an election. Many voters feel he moved too quickly and made overly bold assertions before he had a solid case. Others feel that he should have made arrests much sooner than he did, on April 17. At a public forum that included all three candidates on April 12, Bishop suggested he would have handled the issue with "integrity."

That's been one of the buzzwords from the beginning, in both the case and the campaign. At the same public forum, Bishop said Nifong's handling of the case will affect how people will view the integrity of the incumbent's tenure on the job.

Nifong didn't disagree with Bishop on that last point.

"It's not about making people happy," Nifong told the same forum. "It's about doing the right thing. I expected I would be criticized."

Paula McClain, a professor of political science and co-director of Duke's Center for Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences, says nothing Nifong could have done would have shielded him from criticism.

"No matter what you do, someone's going to say you're making this political. He's probably done some things he should not have done, but whether what he's done has made it more political?" McClain asked. "This would have been political, regardless."

During Nifong's campaign appearances, he has said the election hasn't kept him from working in the interests of justice and the citizens of Durham County in the lacrosse case, such as his speech on April 12: "I didn't pick the crime. I didn't pick the time. But I'm going to do the case right because you deserve that."

Bishop's criticism of Nifong is a direct shot at the cornerstone of the district attorney's campaign image. Of the 11 endorsements listed on Nifong's Web site, eight mention his ethics, integrity or courage.

Even Butch Williams, who represents some of the lacrosse players, supports Nifong's candidacy, and says the DA is "honest and forthright, firm but fair. It is never personal with him."

On Monday, an attorney representing one of the accused players demanded Nifong's removal from the case. Nifong's reaction: "They don't want to go up against me."

No Republicans are running, a common occurrence in local elections in a city that counts a high percentage of blacks among its residents, so the winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly be Durham County's next district attorney. It remains to be seen how Black or Bishop will handle the case going forward, if either is elected. Presumably, only Nifong, his staff, and the police know the nature of the evidence leading him to press the issue. The other two candidates have given no indication how they would plan to handle the case. Black, though, is a former prosecutor who bills herself as "an advocate and friend for the victims of crime" on her campaign Web site. Less is known about Bishop, who did not make his bones as a prosecutor.

But considering the level of investment the community has in the case, it almost certainly will proceed into the foreseeable future no matter who wins the office, whether it ever reaches trial or not. Even if he loses Tuesday's election, Nifong would be scheduled to remain in office through the November general election and into January, when a successor would be inaugurated.

"The politically astute thing for whoever wins to do would be to let the justice system to run its course," said McClain, who cites urban politics as one of her specialties. "Anything short would be detrimental. People want resolution."

Resolution has been rare in the news about the case, but that hasn't stopped people from poring through pages and surfing through channels in the effort to find it. Following the story means being bombarded with up-to-the-minute coverage that hasn't provided much help in discerning the significant from the insignificant. Even headlines can be confusing. Consider the story about an Associated Press interview with Kim Roberts, the other dancer at the lacrosse team party. When the AP story first appeared on the Raleigh News & Observer's Web site, it ran under the headline, "Second dancer questions doubts about accuser." But the headline soon changed to, "Second dancer didn't see alleged attack," a detail previously disputed by no one and immaterial to the story itself. (The same story ran on ESPN.com with this headline: "Second dancer tells her side of the story.")

Constant leaks have hit the newspapers, often presented in the elegant, bombastic quotes and tone characteristic of Southern attorneys but usually without two cold and less charming elements: solid ethics and verification. As nuggets of so-called "news" have come from every direction -- even from Washington, where one of the players charged in Durham now must stand trial on an unrelated charge -- the level of intrigue in this case is matched by its confusing nature.

"When I talk about the case, I say, 'Well, I heard something,'" said Albert Andres, a Duke graduate living in Durham, referring to the media. "But I don't think I'm informed."

Few are. Since declaring that he didn't need DNA evidence to convict the players charged with rape -- after saying earlier that DNA testing would exonerate the innocent -- Nifong has avoided any public comments about the specifics of the investigation. And defense attorneys have offered only inklings about evidence they claim will absolve their clients, but the inklings rarely come with substantiation.

The net effect on the public?

"It's all just tiring," said Chan Bahn, a local restaurant owner, as he shook his head and rolled his eyes. "I don't know who to believe, man. It's all lawyers talking."

In an editorial in the Capital Weekly of Tallahassee, Fla., attorney Chuck Hobbs wrote that both sides in this case -- Nifong as well as the defense attorneys -- have behaved unethically when they've dealt with the press. Hobbs, who has worked rape cases both for the state and for the defense, took specific umbrage with Bill Thomas, who represents one of the lacrosse captains and claimed the accusation of rape was simply a story concocted by the alleged victim to avoid being arrested for public drunkenness. For Thomas to say that with no corroboration, Hobbs said, is "blatant sophistry."

In a telephone interview, Hobbs said statements like that taint jury pools. People get confused.

"I've been there [as an attorney]," Hobbs said. "All this talk from the defense is smoke and mirrors."

By now, Durham residents have been spun so often and so hard that even the most naive question the intentions of the case's major players, including the candidates to represent the Democratic Party in the race for district attorney. This is Nifong's first election (he was appointed after the post was vacated). Black, who is probably Nifong's chief competition, is well-known because of her role as prosecutor in a high-profile trial of novelist Mike Peterson nearly three years ago. She is respected by Durham's sizable black voter base, and even attends a black church, which are significant factors in light of Nifong's zealous prosecution of this racially charged case.

As for the defense attorneys, they're bound to their clients' version of the truth.

Roberts has spoken to the media, but only after she contacted a public relations firm in an attempt to capitalize on her involvement in the case. She also has a rap sheet, which includes a 2001 conviction for embezzling $25,000 from her place of employment, and her bond status on a probation violation was favorably adjusted by Nifong after she gave a statement to the police.

The accuser has four misdemeanors on her rap sheet, all from an incident in which she allegedly stole a taxi driven by a patron at a strip club slightly off the beaten path.

Even purposely avoiding the newspapers or the Internet doesn't guarantee safe haven from propaganda about the case. Williams has been trumpeting his clients' innocence whether cameras are rolling or not. When he heard himself mentioned in conversation at a Durham barbershop by the man in the next chair -- this writer, who didn't know him -- Williams began telling all present about certain members of the team who were at the party and whether one of his clients called for the dancers to attend, and then mentioned details of a meeting he had with Roberts, the second dancer.

Later, Williams appeared at a 15th anniversary celebration for a local architecture firm, and again discussed the case in detail.

"We all just wanted him to shut up," said a person in attendance.

Compared to this circus, the made-for-Court TV murder trial of Peterson back in 2003 was a petting zoo.

Peterson was convicted of killing his wife Kathleen and devising what prosecutors called a "fictional plot" to make her death seem accidental. The trial was replete with lurid allegations and dramatic developments, including a charge that Peterson had killed his neighbor in 1984 in a similar manner (he ultimately became the legal guardian of the neighbor's children), a murder weapon believed to be missing for most of the trial but placed into evidence late by the defense, and the possibility that Peterson had killed his wife out of anger after she discovered pornographic e-mails he'd sent to a male prostitute.

The salacious details surrounding the Peterson case generated plenty of intrigue, but not like the intrigue that surrounds the lacrosse case.

"The Mike Peterson case was more of a curiosity, like a soap opera," said Krista Summitt, who maintains a blog that is primarily concerned with the welfare of the alleged victim, but has served as an outlet for news on the case. "It went from the [murder weapon] thing to the gay thing to the gay guy, and he had his own little side story -- the prostitute or whatever. It was just strange.

"I don't know if the average person could necessarily relate to it. Here [in the lacrosse case], black or white, there are more people that could relate to it."

Summitt sees race and the sexual nature of the crime as factors that resonate easily in the community. Rhonda Sharpe, a professor who teaches seven of the lacrosse players in her sports economics class at Duke, is bothered that the race of those at the party gets more attention than how race is affecting the investigation.

"[People] are so caught up in the rape issue and the racial aspect that they're not paying attention to the legal aspect," Sharpe said. She noted an incident in 2004, in which hundreds of black men were asked by police in Charlottesville, Va., to submit DNA samples to assist in the investigation of a serial rapist who was believed to be black.

"The NAACP and ACLU shut that down," Sharpe said.

The courts deemed that compelling such submissions is unconstitutional because the DNA samples were requested of an entire class of people.

Sharpe, who is black, has been bothered that people are not asking "hard questions" about some of the case's irregularities, such as the timing of the alleged victim's accusations and the collection of evidence, and how those factors have affected the treatment of all the parties involved in the case.

She believes that had the crime scene been investigated sooner than it was (there was a gap of more than 24 hours), there would be "less question about Duke, about Nifong, and about the police department. Those are the things that worry me."

If there is a trial in the lacrosse case, most legal analysts say it's unlikely to begin before early 2007, and that leaves a lot of time for more spin and speculation. At this point, the public doesn't know if there is evidence that any lacrosse player even had sex with the accuser, consensual or not. But while advances in forensic science have lessened the emphasis on "he said/she said" jurisprudence, no one should be fooled by the neat and tidy plot lines they see on "CSI." Legal experts say an overwhelming number of sexual assault cases are tried without incontrovertible physical evidence.

Even knowing that, the lack of knowledge about physical evidence complicates things for those watching from the outside. After the DNA results showed nothing, Summitt said she nearly took down her blog.

"It's been a roller coaster," Summitt said. "From 'Are they going to charge anybody?' to [when] the DNA came back and there was nothing … I'm just a concerned citizen. This is 24/7. This is a total series of peaks and valleys. It had gotten kind of draining."

Nearly as difficult for many Durham residents is the way the city has been portrayed. Durham is often treated like the middle child of the Research Triangle it shares with Raleigh and Chapel Hill. It's smaller than Raleigh, less affluent than Chapel Hill, and the butt of jokes from both directions. Durhamite is the official term for someone from the Bull City, but its pronunciation is frequently shortened into a two-syllable word that rhymes with termite and is thrown around like a slur, usually in reference to black folks in Durham.

Stephen Miller, a columnist for the Duke Chronicle, argued in a recent column headlined "Welcome to the Durham Petting Zoo" that the city offers little for Duke students to do, particularly if they're looking for culture.

"I have nothing against the town, but I wouldn't describe it as a rich treasure-trove of life and culture waiting to be discovered by an eager student," Miller wrote. "I would more accurately describe it as one of the last spots in America anyone would visit were it not for the presence of Duke University."

Miller did not answer requests to be interviewed for this story.

The national media has portrayed the city as poverty-stricken, and juxtapositions of the Bull City's median income against those of the communities where most Duke students come from have been used frequently to show Durham's urban blight. But according to the 2000 Census, the city's median household income of $41,160 is nearly $3,000 greater than New York's. Though a water tower with the Lucky Strike logo still dots the downtown skyline, the city has shifted away from tobacco and has built a burgeoning technology sector.

And not everyone agrees with Miller. When asked for his take on perceptions of the city, Andres' tone turns somber.

"It just makes me sad," said Andres, who spends many evenings playing drums in various bands. "I love my school, but I also love Durham. In Raleigh and Chapel Hill, I really feel like there's not enough to do. In Durham, I feel like there just aren't enough days in the week to do all the things I want to do.

"I'm not going to pretend the city doesn't have problems. If the numbers say there's lots of crime, then there's lots of crime. But if I stay in the area and buy a house, it will be in Durham."

From nearly every perspective, this has been a uniquely tiring and frustrating time in Durham. When the case finally is resolved -- and resolution will mean different things to different people -- there likely will be few winners.

"Duke is losing in this and Durham is losing in this," one gentleman, a lifelong resident who wished to remain anonymous, said in a cigarette-tinged Carolinian drawl. "The only person who is going to win from this is whoever beats Nifong."

Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Tell him how you feel at bomani@bomanijones.com.