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Is that Egg on your Face?

Duke lacrosse rape case looks like Tawana Brawley all over again

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These days, it's a shock a minute in the Duke lacrosse team gang rape saga. But you'd never know it reading the nation's newspapers.

Nearly every day, it seems, a new set of documents turns up that should have been entered into the court record but inexplicably weren't. These documents all have two things in common: They are devastating to the prosecution's case, and if they had been given to the judges and defense attorneys two months ago, as they should have been, odds are pretty good that charges would never have been filed.

Here's just a sample:

• The alleged victim told medical personnel she wasn't raped the night of the incident, then changed her mind later. The nurse who examined her and supposedly found evidence of sexual assault was in training. She also didn't find evidence of sexual assault, just evidence the alleged victim had had sex recently.

• The first time the accuser looked at a group of photos containing a picture of David Evans, she said she didn't recognize any of the men as her attacker. It wasn't until weeks later, when she looked at his picture for the second time, that she said it was Evans who assaulted her.

• Investigators told the court she was choked and sodomized with a foreign object. But medical reports that turned up last week show she had no bruising on her upper body and she told the nurse she hadn't been assaulted with a foreign object.

• A second dancer who was at the house that night initially told police the rape accusation was a "crock."

The list goes on and on, and each day it gets more outrageous. In fact, it now appears the Durham police and perhaps even prosecutor Michael Nifong withheld evidence judges and defense attorneys had a right to see.

With its hair-pin turns and twists, this should be a perfect made-for-the-media story, the kind that keeps readers glued. Instead, newspapers around the country have gone utterly AWOL on the Duke story. It's reminiscent of the Tawana Brawley case in upstate New York, in which 15-year-old Brawley claimed she was abducted and raped by six white police officers. Activists Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox and attorney C. Vernon Mason rallied to Brawley's side. But her story began to unravel, and it soon became clear she had made up the abduction and rape to avoid punishment for staying out too late. The media lapped up the initial rape story, but devoted fewer column inches to the hoax.

In the Duke lacrosse incident, only three print outlets, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Durham Herald Sun and the Associated Press, have continued to cover the case thoroughly. For reasons that aren't clear, the Charlotte Observer finally picked up the pen again last week and reported some of the devastating, weeks-old details the other three papers had long ago reported. But at least the Observer is back in the game, which is more than you can say for most of the rest of the country's papers.

A Lexis-Nexis search shows that another two dozen or so papers across the country, including the New York Times, buried three- to six-paragraph synopses of the new "revelations" an average of 10 to 15 pages back in their A or B sections. And that's about it.

Which is not to say that most of the American print media isn't still covering the Duke rape case. They are. They're just no longer interested in divulging (or divulging prominently) the most relevant details.

A few weeks ago, Nexis shows, more than 80 articles and disapproving editorials ran in newspapers across the country after the women's lacrosse team wrote the numbers 6, 13 and 45 on their sweat bands during a game as a show of support for David Evans (6), Collin Finnerty (13) and Reade Seligmann (45), the three lacrosse players indicted for rape. That game, ironically, occurred on the same day the contradictory evidence above began to roll out. An Associated Press wire story detailing those revelations was picked up by less than a dozen newspapers. The rest of the print media chose to obsess over the sweatbands instead.

Then, last week, as what was left of the accuser's story fell apart and it began to appear the police had deliberately suppressed information that damaged their case, this country's newspapers ran more than 200 articles and editorials on Duke University President Richard Brodhead's decision to reinstate the team with a new coach in the fall. The meat of the story, again, was reduced to about two-dozen brief, buried pieces while the team's reinstatement made the front pages of papers across the country.

Yeah, the print media in this country, and in particular the editorial boards, Brawleyed this thing in the beginning. They called for a hanging before the DNA results were in. But this is a good story that needs to be covered, all of it. What did the district attorney know when he sought an indictment and when did he first learn about it? A crack investigative team could have a blast with that one. And this has all the markings of the kind of police malfeasance reporters dream about. Sure, the target this time was a bunch of privileged kids, the kind of kids the media isn't used to sticking up for. But the target next time it might not be. Is this how the Durham police department conducts investigations?

There are hundreds of angles out there and millions of readers waiting to read something that doesn't put them to sleep. We need to give it to them now, before it's too late.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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