DURHAM, N.C.—Seventeen North Carolina Central University undergraduates in a communications class were asked to think like a jury: Raise your hand if you believe the accuser in the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case fabricated her story.
The students in the cramped cinderblock classroom looked at each other and at the reporter posing the issue. Not a single hand was raised.
Some of the defendants' backers now refer to her story as a "hoax," saying the proceedings show how society rushed to judgment against the accused players.
But in the class on North Carolina Central's campus, a blend of Georgian-style and modern brick buildings crisscrossed by busy streets several miles from Duke, students believe the case illustrates something else.
It demonstrates, they said, how "victims" such as the woman in the case can be trampled by the justice system, how their voices can get lost. While the students didn't pretend to know what happened on the evening the woman said she was assaulted at an off-campus Duke party, their comments reflect an uneasiness bordering on distrust about the justice system's ability to uncover the truth.
"You have this team of white lacrosse players from Duke, and you have this North Carolina Central University black girl that strips for a living," said one of the students, Teccara M. Carmack of Durham. "It's just kind of not in her favor."
Some in the class said they felt used by District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who vowed publicly to aggressively prosecute the players last spring but recused himself last month after ethics charges were lodged against him by the North Carolina State Bar.
Before turning the case over to the state attorney general's office, Nifong had called the players "hooligans."
"He just milked it for his advantage," said undergraduate Brielle McCadden of Burlington Township, N.J. "He sold us the pipe dream that 'I will do whatever I can do.' It was the flavor of the month. Sorry to say, but that's how it went."
Nine students in the class raised their hands when asked if they thought the accuser was sexually assaulted, as she has claimed. The other eight indicated they believe an assault could have occurred, but that the accuser may not know precisely what happened - possibly because she was drunk.
"I personally believe something happened," McCadden said.
Different at DukeThe sentiment is different at Duke, where two of the defendants have been invited back to school - the third has graduated - and a columnist for the student newspaper wrote recently of campus "loathing" directed at Nifong and the accuser.
"If people believe you can rape a woman and not leave any physical evidence, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell them," said Frostburg State University associate economics professor William Anderson, who has written extensively in blogs about the case and believes the accuser manufactured her story. Anderson said he wondered whether North Carolina Central students expressing faith in the accuser had succumbed to "peer pressure."
North Carolina Central seems more closely connected to Durham than Duke, whose pine trees and green spaces provide a buffer from the city. Most of Central's students are from the state, and many work part-time to help pay tuition, room and board amounting to about $8,000 a year. With more than 6,000 undergraduates, the school is big enough that most students don't know the accuser, although her story has been widely discussed.
North Carolina Central figures prominently in the case. Not only is the accuser a full-time student, but it was there that Nifong appeared at a "town hall" meeting in April and assured students the case wasn't being dropped despite a lack of DNA evidence.
The accuser alleged she was pulled into a bathroom and raped during a March 13 party at a house rented by three lacrosse team captains just off Duke's campus. Her widely reported claims sparked demonstrations at Duke and the surrounding community. But on Dec. 22, Nifong dropped rape charges against the defendants after the woman expressed doubts about her earlier statements. The case is being reviewed and no trial date has been set for the charges Nifong left intact.
Her North Carolina Central defenders say it matters little that the accuser may have wavered.