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Justice went awry Duke lacrosse case shameful example of prosecutorial, public witch hunt

It was a perfect storm of so much of what is wrong with modern America. Sex, race, class, a ravenous 24-hour news cycle that infected even the more staid precincts of print journalism and, the evil glue that held it all together, a prosecutor who was more interested in scoring political points for himself than in seeing that justice be done.

It may be a while before the mention of the word "Duke" or "lacrosse" will conjure in most minds anything other than the 13-month ordeal of three Duke lacrosse players who were accused -- wrongly, we now know -- of raping a stripper who had been hired for a raucous party.

The case blazed across the mediasphere, especially on the many cable TV shows where self-appointed experts spend hours analyzing cases about which they know next to nothing, because it had all the elements. White male athletes attending an elite college accused of abusing a poor black woman who had nothing but two children to feed.

Those who jumped to the conclusion that not only must the three be guilty, but also that a mob must be formed to make sure their privileged college-jock status did not allow them to get away with it, ranged from their own classmates and professors to total strangers a continent away. The local prosecutor, the now-disgraced Michael B. Nifong, and the local police sharpened the pitchforks and stoked the torches by doing absolutely everything wrong, from botching the photo lineup to saying the suspects were stonewalling when, in truth, no one had even bothered to ask the young men any questions.

It would be nice to be able to claim that the relentless media attention was what eventually brought out the truth -- that the clearly distressed woman who made the accusations changed her story frequently, that the DNA evidence pointed in any direction other than the accused. But it would be more honest to say that it was some high-powered -- and media-savvy -- legal talent that spared the young men from not only a sensational trial but also, possibly, serious prison time for a crime they did not commit.

Some honor falls on North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who took over the case some months ago when it started falling apart. Rather than stand up for his fellow prosecutor and hope it would all go away quietly, Cooper very publicly dropped all the charges, referred to the formerly accused as "innocent" -- a term lawyers seldom use -- and made it clear that Nifong had botched the case, not out of honest errors, but due to a "tragic rush to accuse."

The case is over. The story is not. Somewhere, a poor woman really will be raped by one or more rich young men who feel entitled. She won't report it, or won't be believed, because someone else cried wolf, and because a public official was more interested in playing to the mob than in seeing that justice be done.

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