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The Many Ways in Which The New Book About the Duke Lacrosse Case is Wrong

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The most striking thing about William D. Cohan's revisionist, guilt-implying new book on the Duke lacrosse rape fraud is what's not in it.

The best-selling, highly successful author's 621-page The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities adds not a single piece of significant new evidence to that which convinced then–North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper and virtually all other serious analysts by mid-2007 that the lacrosse players were innocent of any sexual assault on anyone.

Unless, that is, one sees as new evidence Cohan's own stunningly credulous interviews with three far-from-credible participants in the drama who themselves add no significant new evidence beyond their counterfactual personal opinions.

They are Mike Nifong, the disbarred prosecutor and convicted liar; Crystal Mangum, the mentally unbalanced rape complainant and (now) convicted murderer, who has dramatically changed her story more than a dozen times; and Robert Steel, the former Duke chairman and Goldman Sachs vice chairman, who helped lead the university's notorious rush to judgment against its own lacrosse players.

Cohan is not deterred by the fact that Nifong admitted and Steel said, quite unequivocally, both in April 2007, that the lacrosse players were innocent of committing any crimes during the March 13–14, 2006 spring break party at their captains' house, where Mangum and Kim Roberts were hired to strip. Nifong said on July 26, 2007 that "there is no credible evidence" that any of the three indicted lacrosse players committed any crime involving Mangum. Steel said on April 11, 2007 that Cooper's exoneration of them that day "explicitly and unequivocally establishes [their] innocence." Nifong has since all but retracted his admission and Steel has waffled on his.

Cohan duly but inconspicuously includes these statements in his semi-free-association narrative. At the same time, he implies dozens of times that one or more players sexually assaulted Mangum in a bathroom during the party. In recent interviews, Cohan has made his thesis more explicit: “I am convinced, frankly, that this woman suffered a trauma that night” and that "something did happen in that bathroom," Cohan told Joe Neff of the Raleigh News & Observer. In an April 8 Bloomberg TV interview, he ascribed the same view to his three main sources: “Between Nifong, Crystal, and Bob Steel, the consensus seems to be something happened in that bathroom that no one would be proud of.” He said much the same on MSNBC's fawning "Morning Joe" the next day.

Cohan also asserted in a Cosmopolitan interview that Mangum now "describes it as somebody shoving a broomstick up her. All I know is that the police believed her, district attorney Mike Nifong believed her, and the rape nurse Tara Levicy believed her." This seems doubtful, since none of Mangum's many stories in March 2006 and for years thereafter mentioned anything about a broomstick being used to assault her, a scenario also ruled out by the physical evidence.

(Disclosure: I coauthored, with KC Johnson, a 2007 book concluding that all credible evidence points to the conclusion that no Duke lacrosse player ever assaulted or sexually abused Crystal Mangum in any way. I have also become friendly with some of their parents and lawyers. I thus have both a lot of relevant information and an obvious interest in discrediting Cohan's book. I have no complaint about its references to me.)

The rape-by-broomstick and other Cohan innuendos and assertions are not supported—indeed, they are powerfully refuted—by the long-established facts that his own book repeats, not to mention some facts that he studiously leaves out.

This has not prevented an amazing succession of puff-piece reviews in The Wall Street Journal, FT Magazine, the Daily News, Salon, the Economist, the Daily Beast, and The New York Times, whose reviewer (unlike the others cited above) at least knew enough to write that "Cohan hasn’t unearthed new evidence" and that "[t]here is still nothing credible to back up the account of an unreliable witness."

Some of the most sensational supposed revelations in Cohan's "definitive, magisterial account" (as touted in Scribner's press package) were proved false within two days of his April 8 publication date. 

  • In an April 9 email responding to an inquiry from me, Robert Steel contradicted Cohan's claim that Steel thinks "that something happened in that bathroom that no one would be proud of." Steel told me: "I have no view now, nor have ever had a view of what if anything happened in the bathroom. Period." He added that he had never used, or heard, the words used by Cohan.
  • James Coman, the veteran prosecutor who led Attorney General Cooper’s reinvestigation of the case, has denounced as "figments of [Nifong's] imagination" Nifong's assertion that Cooper had "sandbagged" Coman. To the contrary, Coman told reporter Joe Neff that, after an in-depth reexamination of the evidence, he and his colleague Mary Winstead insisted that Cooper declare the players innocent, and Cooper agreed. Cohan appears never to have called Coman or Winstead to check the accuracy of Nifong's self-serving speculation.
  • Phil Seligmann, father of wrongly indicted lacrosse player Reade Seligmann, denounced as "patently false" Cohan's claim that the Seligmanns had never paid Reade's first two lawyers, Buddy Conner and the late Kirk Osborn, for any of their work. "We made hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal payments to Kirk and Buddy," for all the work they did, Seligmann said. He added that Cohan had never contacted him or Reade to check his false report.
  • Cohan's claim that Duke University paid $60 million in 2007 to the three wrongly indicted lacrosse players to settle their threatened lawsuit against the university is flat-out false. The actual figure is widely known to have been one-third as much, as stated in more reliable reports. These reports also give the lie to Cohan's wild, book-promoting claims that the lacrosse case has cost Duke "near $100 million" in settlements and legal and PR fees.

 Sensational smears based on false information aside, the absence of new evidence does not deter Cohan from seeking to spin his own tendentious characterizations of old evidence—often contradicted by other evidence elsewhere in the book—into dark Nifongesque innuendos of sexual assault, or "something."

Along the way, Cohan repeatedly smears the falsely accused “Duke lax bros,” as he mockingly calls them on Twitter. Sometimes he disparages them in his own voice (as in, "the festering wound that was Duke lacrosse"). Sometimes he happily quotes Nifong, left-leaning professors (one of whom calls the players "arrogant, callous, dismissive"), and journalists. Cohan does not cite many specifics other than the lacrosse players' admittedly bad (but not very unusual) record of binge drinking and noisy parties at rented houses in a residential neighborhood near the campus. And sometimes, just for balance, he says nice things, especially about the only team member who gave him an interview.

He deprecates as "perfunctory" the conclusion of a committee chaired by liberal, black law professor James Coleman that the lacrosse players were generally polite, nondisruptive students who had "performed well academically," behaved in an "exemplary" fashion on trips, and been "respectful of people who serve the team," from bus drivers and airline personnel to the groundskeeper.

In a remarkably content-free exercise in character assassination by proxy, Cohan approvingly quotes Nifong’s attacks on all of the former DA's major antagonists—without, it appears, seeking responses from any of them, excepting Roy Cooper, who refused to talk to Cohan. With seeming approval, Cohan quotes Nifong trashing Cooper for "selling [his] soul to the devil" by exonerating the lacrosse players. He quotes Nifong denouncing as "corrupt" Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith. (Smith had sentenced Nifong to a night in jail for lying to him in court.) Corrupt? Nifong explains that he was told by someone who was told by someone that someone else had "overheard" Judge Smith at a wedding saying something that seemed to prejudge the case.

Cohan also endorses Nifong's attack on the three-person, North Carolina State Bar disciplinary panel that disbarred Nifong after a five-day trial. Nifong calls the panel a "kangaroo court" engaged in what Cohan calls a "sacrificial slaughter." The panel had found Nifong guilty of violating the state's ethical rules by his aggressive media campaign, early in the case, to tar the lacrosse players as racist rapists and "hooligans"; by seeking to hide highly exculpatory DNA evidence from the defense; and by lying to Judge Smith about that evidence. Cohan does not put the slightest dent into the overwhelming evidence supporting the actions of Cooper, Judge Smith, and the state bar panel.1

Cohan devotes dozens of pages to describing Nifong—and quoting his self-descriptions—in mostly glowing, if sometimes unintentionally ironic, terms, as in "Nifong developed a lifelong disdain for bullies."2 Indeed, Cohan's attitude toward Nifong's proven, extreme abuses of prosecutorial power is so astonishingly benign as to almost imply that because poor black kids often don't get fair treatment from the criminal justice system, rich (and not so rich) white kids should not get fair treatment either—no matter how innocent.

Cohan offers a breathtakingly misinformed (to put it charitably) argument dismissing as "a red herring" the charge that Nifong had hidden from defense lawyers exculpatory evidence that the DNA of four unidentified males (not Duke lacrosse players) and sperm from her boyfriend was found in or on Mangum. Why does Cohan deem it a “red herring”? First, he argues that Nifong did not try to hide the four males' DNA. But mainly, he asserts that "it didn't matter" because "Nifong had tried—and won—many rape cases without DNA evidence."

Perhaps he had, either before DNA evidence was available or in cases in which its presence or absence proved little. But DNA was dispositive in the Duke lacrosse case. The absence of lacrosse players' DNA on or in her body or clothing proved the innocence of the three indicted defendants. It's almost inconceivable that they could have brutally raped, sodomized, and ejaculated in Mangum for anything close to 30 minutes, as she originally claimed, without leaving DNA. The evidence of the four unidentified males' DNA was damaging to Mangum’s credibility, showing that she had concealed recent sexual activity from the police, among other points.

Even Cohan admits that if Nifong had released the state's exculpatory analysis of the DNA evidence as soon as he had it either to the public or to defense lawyers (who would have made it public), it "would likely have doomed Nifong's reelection [sic] effort" and been "the end of the case." (This was the appointed DA's first election.)

None of these actions by Nifong prevent Cohan from presenting him as a person of integrity who had made a few forgivable mistakes in his zeal to champion "my victim," Mangum. While straining to make excuses for Nifong, Cohan sneers repeatedly at the players' defense lawyers, whom he calls "masters at manipulating the media" (in the Cosmopolitan interview) for their "shock and awe" campaign and "fat retainers."

Manipulating the media? The defense lawyers' media campaign consisted of making public what Cohan never denies was truthful and probative evidence of innocence. And unless I missed something while slogging through this seemingly endless tome, Cohan does not cite a single intentionally false, misleading, or otherwise inappropriate statement that any defense lawyer for a lacrosse player ever made.

Cohan also seems at times to lose track of the flow of events, repeatedly contradicting on one page claims that he makes elsewhere. On page 572, for example, Cohan states that Nifong "never said he agreed with Cooper's finding of innocence." This flatly contradicts what Cohan writes on the preceding page, where he quotes Nifong's above-referenced July 26, 2007 admission that "there is no credible evidence that [the three indicted players] committed any of the crimes for which they were indicted or any other crimes during the party."

Although Cohan seems to try to libel-proof his book by pasting in, with little analysis, dozens of pages of material favorable to the lacrosse players (as well as much more material hostile to them, and much deadly dull filler), there are some telling omissions. Two come in his discussion of sexual assault nurse Tara Levicy, who—alone among the three doctors and five nurses who interviewed or examined Mangum after she reported to Duke University Hospital as a self-styled rape victim—expressed confidence that Mangum was telling the truth and claimed (falsely) that there was physical evidence to back her up. Levicy was not in charge of the physical exam.

Cohan dismisses claims that Levicy was biased in favor of rape complainants as based on nothing more than her time with Planned Parenthood, her enthusiasm for Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, and her strong feminist convictions. But the defense never attacked her for feminist convictions. It suggested that she was incompetent. And when others (including KC Johnson and me) stressed Levicy's apparent bias, the most important evidence we cited was her highly revealing sworn deposition testimony that she had "never" doubted the truthfulness of any rape complainant and her pattern of changing her own analysis repeatedly to fit Nifong's changing theories of the case. Cohan omits both.

A Scribner-Cohan press release also claims falsely that Levicy's "report of what Mangum told her that night [actually, the next morning] is stunning and has never before been revealed." (Cohan said the same on the April 14 Diane Rehm Show, two days after KC Johnson had exposed it as false on his blog.) In fact, Levicy's report was obtained and summarized in detail more than seven years ago by numerous reporters and authors, including KC Johnson and me, and was publicly discounted as unconvincing by Attorney General Cooper's distinguished investigators.

More generally, after endorsing many times Nifong's assertions that the medical evidence supported Mangum's rape claim, Cohan acknowledges that Cooper's investigators had found that "[n]o medical evidence confirmed her stories." They also found that Levicy had "based her opinion that the exam was consistent with [Mangum's story] largely on [her] demeanor and complaints of pain rather than on objective evidence."

How does Cohan manage to fill 621 pages? He stuffs them with long, long, often repetitive quotations from his interviews with Nifong, news articles, op-ed columns (including two of mine), blog posts, and other previously published remarks. He also goes on for dozens and dozens of pages detailing and lamenting the well-known culture of underage binge drinking, overemphasis on athletics, and flaccid academic standards at Duke and other prestigious colleges.

These temperance lectures would be harmless, and even of some value, but for the author's underlying campaign. He is remarkably indulgent, on the whole, of the disgraceful rush to judgment against the Duke lacrosse players by Robert Steel, by Richard Brodhead, the cowardly Duke president, by other top administrators, and by almost 100 Duke professors.

The great mystery here is why a skillful, highly successful author and journalist would stoop so low. Dreams of a movie deal, perhaps? One also wonders why, to take one of many possible examples, Cohan didn't bother to check his facts with James Coman or Mary Winstead—an elementary precaution for any responsible journalist or author—before trumpeting Nifong's false claim that Cooper had "sandbagged" them when he exonerated the lacrosse players. Was the best-selling author of this "definitive, magisterial account"—which I would call deeply dishonest—afraid of letting stubborn facts spoil sensational stories? 

  1. The panel was also concerned about Nifong's refusal even to look at highly exculpatory evidence that defense lawyers tried to present to him; his use of rigged identification procedures to frame the three defendants; and his rush to indict them based almost solely on Mangum's wildly changing stories.

  2. The Urban Dictionary lists "Nifong" as a quasi-synonym for "bully," and defines "to Nifong" as, among other things, "to knowingly undermine set professional standards to further ones [sic] career, on the back of innocent people." And based on Nifong's ravings to his admirer Cohan, his name could also be cited as a quasi-synonym for "rabid" in the next edition.)