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.
Students at the historically black state university, where the accuser is enrolled, mostly support the 28-year-old student, mother and exotic dancer whose allegations against three former Duke lacrosse players have been widely discredited in court and the media.
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 Duke
The 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.
"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."