WASHINGTON -- It's hard to say which is unraveling faster: the sexual-assault case against three former Duke University lacrosse players or the public's interest in it. Too many facts can ruin a good story for folks who already have made up their minds.
The Duke players should be prosecuted "whether it happened or not," a student at North Carolina Central University, a mostly black college, told Newsweek a few weeks after the March incident. "It would be justice for things that happened in the past."
No, it wouldn't. It would be racial reparations run amok and morphed into mob justice.
As with earlier media-fueled eruptions over race, sex, politics, celebrity and class privilege, the Duke case in many minds is about feelings, not facts. It is not about the accused lacrosse players or the accusing woman. It is about the pain that this drama represents to the rest of us.
As a feast of familiar stereotypes, the Duke story has it all: rich white boys allegedly gone wild; a struggling, single black mom and college student who reportedly turned to stripping to make ends meet; an outspoken white prosecutor who needed black votes in a tough re-election bid; and a publicity-savvy "dream team" for the defense.
After promising black voters that he would not let the Duke case drop against the players he called "hooligans," Michael B. Nifong, the district attorney for North Carolina's Durham County, indicted two of the players two weeks before the election. He narrowly won the three-way district attorney's race.
But just before Christmas, the accuser said she could not say for sure whether she was raped, and Mr. Nifong had to throw out the rape charges. Yet he left the charges of sexual assault and kidnapping still pending against the three defendants.
So much for his declarations on MSNBC in March: "I am convinced that there was a rape, yes sir." He also noted an emergency room nurse's report to a local radio station that indicated "some type of sexual assault did, in fact, take place." That was before DNA tests failed to match the alleged assailants to the accuser.
As Mr. Nifong's case fizzles, he's beginning to resemble the worst descriptions of President Bush's Iraq policy: stuck with a lost cause and not much of an exit strategy, yet refusing to pull out.
Meanwhile, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead has invited the two players who were suspended (one already graduated) back to school. Mr. Brodhead also has called for the district attorney to step aside and give control of the case to an independent party "who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process." That's asking a lot.
And lost in the furor are the people who have to live with the aftermath.
However the Duke case plays out, it offers some valuable lessons about rushing to judgment. Mr. Nifong's questionable statements and actions should remind law-and-order hard-liners that prosecutors are not always right.
Our long history of injustices has made black Americans particularly sensitive to the rights of accused black people, but we also can't forget the rights of suspects who are not black. After all, if institutional racism still holds any power, rights that are denied to whites today can just as easily be denied to blacks tomorrow.
And while the accuser's media image doesn't look very sympathetic these days, she too has rights. We can still feel for her. What we don't know is all of the facts.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.