"I would say that none of us have really been in that type of situation she was in [at the party]. To be violated like that, that's trauma," said Candice Benbow, a North Carolina Central graduate student from Winston-Salem, N.C.

Benbow, who is studying sociology, has followed the case and said she believes "there is truth and there is validity to that story."

Benbow said it's hard for her and other African-American women not to be influenced by the weight of history.

"We didn't see an exotic female dancer and lacrosse players. We saw an African-American female and white young men, and we still see that," Benbow said. "And the history between the two groups is one that's not favorable. So for us, especially being black women, even today we stay on the defensive."

She said the case isn't just about race, but about class, too.

"Had she been a graduate student pursuing a doctorate I really believe there are people who would be up front and say 'This is not right,' " Benbow said.

Duke law professor Paul Haagen said the North Carolina Central students' comments may reflect a general skepticism about the justice system that he found "not surprising." Surveys have found disparate views of the system based on race and class.

Haagen also said the case is hard to understand because even the accuser may not know exactly what transpired.

"There may be a great deal of confusion about what happened that night. There's evidence she was severely intoxicated with something," Haagen said.

Some North Carolina Central students are withholding judgment about the case. "The truth usually comes out at trial," said Roderick Brown, a law student from Myrtle Beach, S.C. "There's a big area of gray that you just don't know about."

'Dogged' by media
But other students have long expressed skepticism that the case will be resolved fairly.

They say the media have "dogged" the accuser by reporting numerous details of her life, including a 2002 case in which she was accused of speeding away in a strip club customer's taxi while drunk. She pleaded guilty to a series of misdemeanors, according to court records.

"What people feared from the very beginning was that we would never know for sure what happened," said Carl Kenney, a local pastor and freelance journalist who has interviewed North Carolina Central students.

"I don't believe anybody is ready to say it [an assault] happened," Kenney said. "At the same time, people are frustrated. The consensus I'm gathering, particularly from African-American females, is that the system was weighted very heavily on behalf of the privileged. This justifies in the minds of many what they already believe."

Brett Chambers, the communications instructor whose class debated the case, has urged his students not to accept the notion - which many students say the media has bombarded them with - that they are powerless compared to undergraduates at Duke.

"I tell them Central has political influence, too," Chambers said. "It may not be as big as Duke's. But the governor [Mike Easley] went to law school here. We have people in places of influence."

Chambers, a Duke graduate, recently began teaching a course with a professor from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. The idea was to invite Duke and North Carolina Central students to study together.

"There are four Duke students and nine Central students," said Barbara Lau, the other professor. "They are learning about one another and, in some cases, realizing the assumptions they had about students from the other campus were inaccurate."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com