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Paula Zahn Now

The Duke Assault Case: A Question of Race

Aired January 16, 2007 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening from Durham, North Carolina.
This is a special edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW, "Out in the Open: The Duke Assault Case, a Question of Race."

This, of course, is the home of Duke University and a sensational legal case that has exposed our society's hidden racial divisions.

Nearly a year ago, a black exotic dancer accused three white players on Duke's lacrosse team of raping her. It seems everyone, the prosecution, the defense, and the media, rushed to judgment.

Tonight, we are here in Durham to listen and to confront disturbing questions about privilege, fairness, justice, and conclusions based on stereotypes, instead of facts.

So, we're going to get started with the facts of the case right now from Jason Carroll, who's been covering it from the very beginning.


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What allegedly happened at a party here at this home last March 13 put three Duke lacrosse players at the center of a criminal case that could land them in prison. Much is debated about what occurred that night.

(on camera): Both sides agree on the following. They say there was underage drinking at a lacrosse party held at this off-campus home rented by several of the players. Two strippers were hired to perform that night, one black, the other biracial.

At some point during the party, someone made a sexual reference to using a broomstick on the young women. Racial slurs were hurled at the dancers. From this point on, the stories differ drastically.

(voice-over): The 28-year-old African-American stripper told police, she was separated from the other dancer, taken into a bathroom, beaten, and raped by three players. The entire team was under suspicion, and released a statement saying no assault took place.

Duke University suspended the team from play. Durham's district attorney, Michael Nifong, frustrated no player had come forward or admitted to seeing the attack, accused the team of stonewalling when I spoke with him last March. MICHAEL NIFONG, DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It just seems like a shame that they are not willing to violate this seeming sacred sense of loyalty to team for loyalty to community.

CARROLL: Nifong drew a divisive line between Duke and Durham, a community where many blacks have historically felt racial tension, especially with Duke University, seen by many in the Durham community as a white, upper-class institution.

The alleged victim, a single mother of three, was a student at a black university not far from Duke, North Carolina Central, where a town hall meeting was held a month after the alleged attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They should have been handcuffed. They should have been arrested.

NIFONG: I think it's usually said something like, if this were a white girl, and the focus was on the N.C. Central basketball team, they would all be in jail right now. And I understand that that is a sentiment in the community.

CARROLL: Nifong, who was up for reelection at the time, attended that meeting. Its critics claimed he played the race card, in an attempt to gain African-American votes. He was asked questions about DNA.

What would it mean if none was found?

NIFONG: It doesn't mean nothing happened. It just means nothing was left behind.

CARROLL: And nothing was left behind. DNA tests showed no match between any of the players and the young woman.

JOE CHESHIRE, ATTORNEY FOR DAVID EVANS: There is no evidence, other than the word of this one complaining person, that any rape or sexual assault took place in that house on that evening.

CARROLL: The young woman picked three players out of a photo lineup, even though the defense would later claim the process was flawed. Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and Dave Evans were indicted for rape, kidnapping, and sexual offense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm absolutely innocent of all the charges that have been brought against me today, that Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty are innocent of all the charges that were brought against them. These allegations are lies.

CARROLL: Duke University suspended the two players who had not graduated, Finnerty and Seligmann. Seven months later, Nifong won reelection. The celebration would not last.

(on camera): The accuser changed her story, telling the DA she could not say with certainty that she had been raped, and that Reade Seligmann did not sexually assault her after all. She alleges Seligmann refused to participate, saying -- quote -- "I cannot do this. I'm getting married."

Nifong was forced to drop the rape charges. The players still face sexual offense and kidnapping charges, which still carry severe penalties.

(voice-over): Collin Finnerty's father publicly challenged Nifong for not dropping all the charges.

KEVIN FINNERTY, FATHER OF COLLIN FINNERTY: It's pretty obvious to us that, from the outset, this man has been using this case for his own personal and political gain. We're not pleased with that.

CARROLL: But the case is no longer in Nifong's hands. He asked to be recused, citing a conflict of interest.

ROY COOPER, NORTH CAROLINA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Our office will now serve as the prosecutor for the state of North Carolina in these three cases.

CARROLL: The state attorney general's office must now review the evidence and decide whether to proceed, meaning this case, which has already polarized the Durham community and touched on sensitive issues of race and class, could end without seeing a trial.

Jason Carroll, CNN, Durham, North Carolina.


ZAHN: We invited a representative from Duke University and its administration to appear with us tonight, but the school has repeatedly turned us down.

But, joining me now, someone who has been deeply involved in this case, Bill Thomas, an attorney representing one of the unindicted captains of the Duke lacrosse team.

Welcome on this chilly night.


ZAHN: Do you think the district attorney played the race card because he was locked in a hotly contested battle?, reelection battle , against a black candidate?

THOMAS: I'm not sure what his motivations were. But it is so...

ZAHN: Do you think race had anything to do with it?

THOMAS: It was so inappropriate to stand in front of the public and to say: I'm not going to have Duke lacrosse players come down here to Durham and rape a black girl.

That was inflammatory. It started a firestorm here. It was a very unfortunate comment.

ZAHN: Do you think he would have said the same thing had those players been black and not white?

THOMAS: I do not think he would have done that.

ZAHN: And why -- why is it that you think that?

THOMAS: I don't understand why he said that.

I have known him for 27 years. I have litigated against him, homicide cases, very serious matters. I have never heard anything like that come out of his mouth. I was quite shocked and surprised. And it held these young men up to public ridicule, up to public condemnation. It really hurt this case. And it started a wave of adverse publicity.

ZAHN: When you say you're not sure what his motivation was, but you believed he would have handled this differently had these been black players accused of this rape, are you acknowledging, then, that his reelection did have something to do with this?

THOMAS: Well, I don't have a window into his mind, but I think most people would think that that is exactly why he said that.

ZAHN: You -- but you personally...


THOMAS: I don't know what his most -- motivations were.

It was very atypical of him. He was in the middle of an election. And it may, in fact, very well have had something to do with him making those statements.

ZAHN: How do you think his comments inflamed race relations in the Durham area?

THOMAS: Well, when he starts making statements like that publicly, and appearing on TV, and standing in front of the courthouse, and demonstrating choke holds, and talking about how he's convinced that a rape occurred, and how these young men were responsible, he painted this entire lacrosse team, all 46 of these young men, as hooligans, as rapists, as racists.

It was just so inflammatory. The press, as a result of that, covered this case with such intensity. These young men were held out to public ridicule. It was horrible. A district attorney should never make those kind of statements in a pending case, pre-indictment or post-indictment.

It was most unfortunate. And it's in that sitting where all of this press came from and all the tension came from. It's in that sitting.

ZAHN: Could it be that he truly believed the accusations of this alleged rape victim?

THOMAS: Well, he very well -- I'm sure he did believe them in the beginning. I'm sure he thought that a rape occurred. He may still think so.

I don't know how he could think that, in light of the evidence in this case. All of the evidence indicates that a sexual assault did not occur. All of the evidence -- evidence indicates a sexual assault could not have occurred and did not occur.

So, I can't believe anyone with any degree of objectivity would view this file and conclude that assault of any nature occurred. The only thing that occurred here was a false allegation of sexual assault. This accusing witness has said she was raped by five, at one point, by 20, by -- she wasn't raped at all. Then, at one point, she said she was groped.

Then, she said she was raped by three people. And now, a little over two weeks ago, she said she wasn't raped at all. She can't remember being raped, but it was only two people involved. This is a moving story for her. Not one of her stories is consistent with any other story she's sold.

All of the forensic evidence points to the innocence of these young men. All of the physical evidence points to the innocence of these young men.

ZAHN: And, yet...

THOMAS: I don't know how anyone could believe, looking at this case file objectively, how a sexual assault took place.

ZAHN: Well, I think a lot of people are -- are hoping that the attorney general will look at this case objectively now...


ZAHN: ... who will be addressing this issue, now that the district attorney has recused himself from the case.

Bill Thomas, thank you...

THOMAS: Thank you.

ZAHN: ... so much for joining us...

THOMAS: Thank you.

ZAHN: ... on this cold winter night.

THOMAS: My pleasure.

ZAHN: No matter what happens in the courtroom, the Duke lacrosse players and their accuser have already been tried in the court of public opinion, as Bill Thomas just pointed out.

But, coming up next: how the case brought this community's racial divide right out into the open.

And a little bit later on: The news media makes the story a national sensation.

We will be right back. Please stay with us.


ZAHN: Welcome back to Durham, North Carolina, and our "Out in the Open" special, "A Question of Race: The Duke Assault Case."

Our latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that this case looks very different to whites and non-whites. Only a minority of whites, 27 percent, believe the charges against the Duke lacrosse players are true. But, when our same poll asked non-whites, just look at the difference. Forty-one percent think the charges are true.

As you're about to see, racial tension that lies just beneath the surface right here in Durham quickly erupted when the case first broke. And we want to warn you that you may be offended by some of this language in this next report.

Once again, here's Jason Carroll.


CARROLL (voice-over): From the very beginning of this case, it became clear, some of what was shaping people's opinions wasn't just coming from developments in the courtroom. It was also coming from underlying racial tensions in the surrounding community.

KELLI BAUMGARTNER, DUKE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: I think race was the main issue in -- in this whole thing. And I just think, more, it brought about the tensions in the community that were already there.

CARROLL: There were town hall meetings, like this, at the accuser's school, North Carolina Central University, an historically black university.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You all know that, if this happened at Central, and the young lady was from another school or another persuasion, the outcome would have been different. They would have been in jail.

CARROLL: Students here reacted to allegations racial slurs were used by the white lacrosse players the night of the alleged attack.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I saw them all come out of, like, a big frat house. And me and my black girlfriend are walking by, and they called us (EXPLETIVE DELETED)


CARROLL: A group of Duke University professors, most of them black, publish this ad in the school's paper, with quotes from students like this African-American, who complained about campus police harassing him, and a white student who wondered why blacks are always complaining.

Even people who had nothing to do with the case, like longtime Durham resident Ann Dumas, felt its impact on the community.

ANN DUMAS, RESIDENT OF DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA: I think it's been real polarizing, unfortunately.

CARROLL: Durham's mayor, William Bell, dismisses the suggestion race has played a major role in the case.

WILLIAM BELL, MAYOR OF DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA: It's not a conversation that people bring up in -- in my circles, unless something has happened in the media. And if it -- even if it is brought up, it's very -- very quickly. You know, we would like to -- like to move on.

CARROLL: Duke's lacrosse team members would also like to move on, but feel they have been unfairly portrayed by some in the community as privileged, mostly white, out-of-control athletes.

TONY MCDEVITT, DUKE UNIVERSITY LACROSSE PLAYER: You read and you see all these reports about, you know -- you know, calling us hooligans, and -- and things of that nature.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there are very real questions that need to be addressed about, you know, racial issues in Durham and throughout our society. But the way in which it's been abused in this case, I think, is -- is a tragedy.

CARROLL: Race, it seems, also played a role in the community's divided loyalties.

The editor of "The Wilmington Journal," published by Black Press USA, found that out after publishing an editorial critical of the lacrosse team.

CASH MICHAELS, "THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL": It was vile. We had folks who called us niggers, folks who called us savages, folks who said that we were racists; by wanting a trial, we wanted to exact some -- some sort of racial revenge for injustices on blacks from a long time ago.

CARROLL: Blacks fired back in letters to "The Charlotte Observer," like Kimm Williams, who wrote: "These lacrosse players feel that they're owed an apology for being dragged through the legal system? Well, welcome to the real world. Every day in my neighborhood, African-American males are pulled over because they fit a description."

In spite of the prosecution's weakening case, many of the black students we found at the accuser's school still believe her version of the story.

CRISTY MORRIS, NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY STUDENT: I feel like she's the victim in the -- in the case.

CARROLL: But many of the white students we found at Duke say the lacrosse players are innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I would like to see when they are vindicated.

CARROLL: But both sides agree, race is a factor in this case that's hard to ignore.

MATT LEVY, DUKE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: And I think the fact that, you know, it's the white elephant in the room, the fact that there are, you know, some issues which we need to address, regardless -- irregardless of the consequences of the criminal investigation.

LAKESHA GORMAN, NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY STUDENT: I think there will always be issues. And I think the case just brought that out even more.

CARROLL: Ultimately, there will be a legal decision in this case. What may be just as important is how to resolve the deeper issues that remain.

Jason Carroll, CNN, Durham, North Carolina.


ZAHN: And we are going to talk about some of those deeper issues now with our "Out in the Open" panel, three people who covered the story, Seyward Darby, former editor of the Duke student newspaper "The Chronicle," A.J. Donaldson, brave guy with no coat on tonight...


ZAHN: ... a columnist at the North Carolina Central University newspaper "The Campus Echo," Cash Michaels, who's showing off here, too, with a lightweight coat, a -- a local journalist with "The Carolinian" and "The Wilmington Journal," whom you saw in Jason's piece.

Welcome, all.

So, Cash, we know that an NCCU student was quoted as saying that the prosecution of these students should go forward, regardless of whether a crime was committed -- quote -- "because it would be payback for justice for things that happened in the past."

How much of a sentiment have you seen for racial revenge in this case?

MICHAELS: You will find that sentiment -- that sentiment prominent among younger people, the more militant members of the community.

But, for the most part, the bread-and-butter part of the African- American community, they want to know what the whole story is. We still don't know what happened that night. We don't have a cohesive accounting of what happened from the moment these young ladies arrived, until they left. That's what they want. They want a trial. They want not just the evidence, but they want sworn testimony, to get some idea as to what really happened.

ZAHN: A.J., is it -- do many of the blacks you talk to feel like they were used by Mike Nifong, and that he played the race card to be reelected as a district attorney?

A.J. DONALDSON, COLUMNIST, NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY NEWSPAPER: Well, first, I -- I would like to say that the younger people, of course, are militant, but not militant in a sense that they don't have any sense with their argument.

For instance, they want it to go through. They want to see the process. And, when a student says "for the things that are done in the past," they're only talking about the examples. For instance, I see our piece last night.

You saw Zikaila (ph) and Alexis (ph) from Milwaukee (AUDIO GAP) inequalities in the media are portrayed. They are not saying that we want these men convicted. However, they are saying, we want to see a fair and -- and fair and speedy trial, the way anyone should be treated.

ZAHN: But I have talked with many whites today that say it is in fact these white guys that got victimized in all of that.

How prevalent is that attitude...


ZAHN: ... on campus?

DARBY: I think that attitude definitely exists on campus, and generally out in the community, just like there's a sentiment in support of the alleged victim, no matter what.

But I think that, on the Duke campus, generally, at this point, people are very sick and tired of Duke being associated with the case. But, also, just as you said, I think everybody would like to see this come to a just conclusion. Nobody wants to see anybody in this case, on either side, held up as an example of revenge for past wrongs at all. I think that's definitely prevalent in all communities.

ZAHN: But, no matter how cautious people are, it seems that a lot of folks have fallen into stereotypes here, even in the description of the alleged assailants as white hooligans, and -- and the victim as a poor black woman.


MICHAELS: Part of that is your fault in the media.


ZAHN: Not all my fault.



ZAHN: But -- but aren't those...

DARBY: I agree.

ZAHN: ... racial stereotypes that are prevalent in society as a whole?

DARBY: Well...

MICHAELS: Oh, there's no question. But they're propagated by the media. I mean, here -- here, you had a -- the perfect storm of a crime story, a poor black woman allegedly raped by three privileged white boys at a prominent university in the south.

That courthouse, the steps over there, you couldn't breathe on those steps. There was a camera here from every part of the country, because it was a good story.

DONALDSON: Well, I would say the media propaganda-ed the issue, but reality pervaded it into the American streets and into North Carolina Central University and other black communities.

You see reality when you feel as though Duke University is a privileged university, but, at the same time, North Carolina Central University is being portrayed as the less fortunate university in the media.

And, then, in some cases, and amongst people, you know, echoing from ear to ear, saying that, you know, North Carolina Central University, less fortunate.

No, we're not less fortunate. We may have less fortune. And that's what's being pervaded in not only the media, but in the consciousness of the people that walk around the Durham community and the people that see it from a distance. They don't understand.

ZAHN: And, yet, as we all know, Duke has made an effort to point out what its scholarship base is, what the makeup of its student body is, and I guess all of this being portrayed by...


DARBY: I think it's...


ZAHN: Seyward, I have got to move on.

And you guys are going to come back and talk to me in a little bit. Seyward Darby, A.J. Donaldson, Cash Michaels, thanks. The Duke story involves questions of race, privilege, sports, and sex. It is apparently an irresistible combination -- coming up next, the making of a media firestorm, and whether the press rushed to judgment based on racial stereotypes.

We will be right back.


ZAHN: And welcome back.

We're in Durham, North Carolina, tonight for our "Out in the Open" special, "The Duke Assault Case: A Question of Race."

When the case broke just last March, it almost immediately became a nationwide sensation, thanks to the media, who shaped the story into a confrontation between stereotypes, a black stripper and a room full of rich white jocks.

We asked contributor Howard Kurtz, who covers the media for "The Washington Post" and CNN, to look into that aspect of the case.


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (voice-over): From the moment last spring that three Duke University lacrosse players were accused of raping a young woman who had been hired to strip for some members of the team at a party, the story rocketed into the media stratosphere.


ROBIN ROBERTS, CO-HOST: Now to that explosive Duke sex scandal.



MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": First, we want to talk more about the Duke rape case.



BOB SCHIEFFER, ANCHOR: The case that has rocked one of America's elite college campuses and divided the community around it.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a story that everybody is talking about. Television can't seem to get enough of it, the Duke University rape case.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: And there were, to be sure, developments that were hard to ignore. The university canceled the rest of the lacrosse season. Mike Nifong, the DA in Durham, North Carolina, obtained indictments against the three players. Their denials that any sexual contact had taken place were duly reported, but did nothing to quiet the media frenzy.

"Newsweek" put two of the defendants' mug shots on the cover. What would have been a local crime story needed a larger narrative to go national, a narrative that media organizations rushed to provide. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas raised "the question of whether college athletes feel they are above the law."

CBS' Trish Regan: "There's a sense that it's the wealth and the privilege and the power behind this university that's protecting these students."

CNN was no exception.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Pampered, privileged athletes getting away with just about everything, does that sound like Duke to you?



MARK GERAGOS, ATTORNEY: If this were black athletes, would they be in jail right now? yes.


KURTZ: Sometimes, words like "alleged" got dropped in the process.


NANCY GRACE, HOST: Oh, you know what, Kevin? I'm so glad they didn't miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape.


KURTZ: Camera crews were dispatched to the players' homes in New Jersey and Long Island, as journalists pumped up the angle that these were affluent white kids, while the unnamed accuser was a single mother who went to a black college in Durham, a stark contrast, built on the assumption that they had abused her.

Sportswriter Christine Brennan says, the coverage was an embarrassment.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, "USA TODAY"/ANNOUNCER: NEWS: We saw a story, all of us, around the country, and especially, I think, TV, but the print media, too, and -- and just went wild. It was -- it was a wildfire just raging out of control. KURTZ: No expertise was required to sound off.

CLARENCE PAGE, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": When you get this debate set up between people who were never even there and aren't even in the town, don't know much about it, but they start talking more in the abstract about race and gender and class, and then you get this much larger drama going on, that stirs up talk around the country, and stirs up circulation and ratings, too.

KURTZ: Newspapers joined the stampede as well. A "Washington Post" story began: "She was black. They were white. And race and sex were in the air."

A "USA Today" headline: "Race and Sex Cast Long Shadow Over Duke." "New York Times" columnist Selena Roberts wrote of a male "locker room culture" that encouraged "the tacit acceptance of denigrating behavior."

BRENNAN: To turn it into racial terms, it's just made for cable television. It's made for the bloggers, for the Web sites. It's made, really, for all of us, even those of us who consider ourselves in the mainstream more reputable media.

KURTZ: It was like a mini-replay of the O.J. Simpson trial, with the pundits choosing up sides.


CALLIE CROSSLEY, MEDIA COMMENTATOR: Then, you have this incident, which is really based on what the old South was all about, that historical context of the sublimation of black women by white men.



SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: We don't have, at the end of the day here, not one little, itty-bitty bit of evidence from this DA, not one.


KURTZ: Journalists gradually turned more skeptical as the case began to crumble. Now that the rape charges have been dropped, many news organizations that jumped on the allegations are criticizing the prosecution. But is it too late?

PAGE: These kids, for the rest of their lives, are going to be known as the Duke rape case suspects, regardless of how this all comes out.

KURTZ (on camera): The Duke story was impossible for the media to ignore, but there was clearly a rush to judgment, which turned one woman's shaky allegations into a racially charged morality tale. By the time journalists woke up to the fact that there was little evidence against these three young men, their reputations had been blackened.

Howard Kurtz, CNN, Washington.


ZAHN: And right now, we're going to turn to an "Out in the Open" panel, the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, a syndicated radio host and founder and president of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, also known as BOND -- that's a little bit easier to say -- Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston; and Kristal Brent Zook, who writes for "Essence Magazine", teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of "Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain".

Welcome, all.

Kristal, do you think there was a rush to judgment in this case, not only by members of the legal community, but the public, as well, because these players were white?

KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK, "ESSENCE MAGAZINE": There's no question that Nifong bungled the situation in his handling of going to the media right away and his outspoken remarks. But you know, I think it's more complicated than just race. It has to do with all of our perceptions of, you know, this is -- is this a woman? Is she sexualized or is she scholarly? You know, it's got so many other things going on in addition to race. So, yes, race is a part of it.

ZAHN: I have talked with a number of people today who think that it was the players who got a really raw deal here. Gail, I know you don't agree with that perception at all.

GAIL DINES, PH.D., SOCIOLOGY PROFESSOR< WHEELOCK COLLEGE: Absolutely not. I think this woman has been hung out to dry by the media. I think questions about her morality, her emotional stability, her psychological stability, which is what happens to women in rape cases and especially to women of color. I think what this case is about is not only sexism but racism. And this is a perfect example of how sexism and racism come together and basically make her the disappeared of all of this case.

ZAHN: What difference would it have made had she been white? How differently do you think this case would have been handled?

DINES: That's a really good -- I don't think they would have suggested that this woman was somehow deserving of this violence as much as they have. There's no question that all women by the media are basically hung out to dry when they -- they even call her the accuser, instead of the victim. So just the way that they've turned her into somehow a perpetrator against these males...

ZAHN: But you have to admit she has not helped her case by the varying accounts she has apparently given members of the legal community, most recently, folks in the district attorney's office.

DINES: Let me say what happens when a woman is sexually abused in some way, then there is a large degree of trauma. And what we know from study after study is when you suffer a sexual trauma, you can't discuss everything that happened clearly. There are memory lapses. You are confused. That's the very nature of trauma.

ZAHN: Reverend Peterson, I see you shaking your head no. But there are a lot of people I've talked to in the community that said, you know, "Give me a break."

How many black players would have been -- they would have been treated, they think, much worse than these white players by the legal system. And they also say, "What's the deal with these guys hiring a stripper? And a black stripper at that?"

REV. JESSE LEE PETERSON, FOUNDER & PRES., BOND: There was a rush to judgment because it was a white on black situation. In this country whenever it's a white on black situation or police on black situation, they always come out of the woodwork. You have Jesse Jackson coming out and promising this girl a scholarship, not even knowing the details. They didn't even wait for the details. The new Black Panther Party coming out and, you know, just making all kind of -- type of threats and things like that.

There's a double standard in America today. White folks don't have a chance. Blacks can do what they want and say what they want. And it's primarily because not all, not all, not all, but most black people are racist toward white Americans today. And this was a good example. This girl's a stripper...

ZAHN: You talk to Reverend Sharpton, you talk to Reverend Jackson, as I had on this show, as we've done a lot of things on race, and they'll say, "But wait a minute. What are you talking about? It's whites who have the economic power in this country."

PETERSON: You have to realize that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and others have used racism in order to further their own careers. When Dr. King was assassinated, they took a message of forgiveness and character and they perverted that message to hatred and judgment. And you now have young black people believing that white Americans are racist toward them and they have no justified reason for that.

ZAHN: Come back to the issue of why you so fervently believe that these white players were victims of racism.

PETERSON: Because you have -- they were accused before even finding or discovering the evidence, the proof that this had happened. Had that been reversed, had it been black men accused by a white woman, the story would totally be different. They would have to wait and find out. But because it's white on black, before the evidence was even proven -- here this woman is a stripper, she had children out of wedlock. Apparently, she just had another baby. But that doesn't matter. Character doesn't matter. These guys were victimized, not the woman.

ZAHN: We've got to move. We've got just ten seconds for a final thought.

BRENT ZOOK: You know, one of the most striking things about this is that she has lost her humanity. She never had...

PETERSON: She never had any.

BRENT ZOOK: That's a problem. In the media she's never been seen as a human being who's obviously in a lot of pain, guilt or innocence aside. There's something that happened to her in her mind which is...

PETERSON: Way back before this.

BRENT ZOOK: ... and she's in pain. She's a human being.


PETERSON: ... show her face. Why don't they reveal who she is, as they're doing with young men? She's not a victim.


ZAHN: ... that has historically been the case with all rape victims. We don't reveal their...

PETERSON: Well, they should put this woman in jail.

ZAHN: Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, Gail Dines, Kristal Brent Zook. Some very strong opinions here tonight.

National interest in the Duke story isn't going away, of course, but the charges might go together -- go away altogether. The rape charges are already out. Coming up next, senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin looks at why the prosecution's case may be about to crumble.

A little bit later on, a rare interview with a member of the accuser's family, and why they think District Attorney Michael Nifong has turned the case into a laughing stock. That's their words.


ZAHN: ... the hometown of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina for an "Out in the Open" special looking at the role that race played in the Duke assault case.

The indicted lacrosse players and their accuser aren't the only ones tangled in controversy. As the case unfolded, Durham District Attorney Michael Nifong soon found his career on the ropes.

Here's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.


MICHAEL NIFONG, DURHAM COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I'm convinced there was a rape, yes, sir. There is evidence of trauma. The lacrosse team clearly has not been fully cooperative.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST (voice-over): In more than 70 interviews Michael Nifong, the district attorney of Durham County, North Carolina, assured the public that three white Duke University lacrosse players, David Evans, Colin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann, raped an African-American exotic dancer during a late night off-campus party last March.

NIFONG: My presence here means that this case is not going away.


TOOBIN: But there was just one problem. There was no rape, according to D.A. Nifong himself, who dropped the rape charges last month when the accuser admitted she wasn't sure if she had been forced to have sexual intercourse.

And that was just the latest setback for a criminal investigation that may have been bungled from the start. Just consider these troubling factors: A witness says the alleged victim entered the house at midnight, and, according to the defense, this picture shows she left at 12:30 a.m. During that 30-minute window, however, Reade Seligmann has documented proof of his whereabouts. Cell phone records indicate he used his cell phone 12 times, and this ATM security camera shows him withdrawing money at 12:24 a.m. A taxi driver testified he later dropped Seligmann off at his dorm, and a university card reader shows Seligmann swiped in at 12:46 a.m.

Another problem for the prosecution? No DNA from any Duke player was found on the body of the accuser, information that the DA withheld from the defense for nearly seven months. And DNA from other men was found on her body.

What about the police photo line-ups? Did they provide more substantial evidence for the DA's case?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: None of the statements that this woman makes...

TOOBIN: The defense says no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... tie in with the truth in any way, shape, or form.

TOOBIN: The accuser was only shown photos of lacrosse team members, no one else, a violation of state and national standards. And even then, the accuser failed to identify Seligmann and Evans in the first two photo line-ups. And in the third photo line-up, she said she was only 90 percent sure Evans was one of her assailants, because he did not have the mustache she remembered on her attacker.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He looks just like him without the mustache.

TOOBIN: Evans' lawyer says these photos, taken the day before and after the party, show his client did not have a mustache.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the prosecution's case is the conflicting testimony of the accuser. According to this police statement, on the night of the alleged attack, she first reports that one male forced her to have sex in the bathroom. Then she says five males raped her. And later, she says no rape took place at all. In an interview with investigators on December 21st, she said there were two attackers.

Nifong, who has never personally interviewed the accuser, only last month instructed someone from his office to interrogate the star witness of his case. The DA's investigator concluded she could not be certain if she was raped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not commenting on the facts of the case.

TOOBIN: And if you thought things couldn't get worse for this case, consider the latest twist. Nifong, after being elected to a second term as DA, recused himself from this case after the North Carolina Bar Association filed ethics complaints against him for making inflammatory and misleading comments to the news media.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are taking a completely new...


ZAHN: So, Jeff, everybody wants to know, where does this case go from here?

TOOBIN: Well, just today, the attorney general of North Carolina picked up six boxes and two folders of material to be shipped to his office, and that's going to be a fresh start for this case. Roy Cooper, the attorney general, and his staff are going to start over, deciding whether any charges are justified. They're going to reinterview the witnesses, look at the DNA evidence all over again, and see if there's any case left here.

ZAHN: And based on what was discovered by Mike Nifong, what is the speculation you have heard on campus from the very smart legal community? Do they expect the AG to dismiss this altogether ultimately?

TOOBIN: I think if you sort of took a poll, most people would say this case is going nowhere. Certainly the public evidence, the kind I talked about in my piece, the stuff that's come out, has been impossible to base a criminal case on.

It's important to remember, though, that that's not all the evidence in the case. The district attorney has not put forward his evidence. Are there admissions by some of the defendants? Are there admissions or statements by other lacrosse players at the party incriminating the defendants? We don't know that yet. But based on the way it looks now, it looks very unlikely that this case will go to trial.

ZAHN: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks. You can go get warm now. It's only about 20 below zero on this roof tonight, on this lovely...

TOOBIN: I thought this was the South.

ZAHN: Yes, exactly. What were we thinking? We realize a lot of people we have heard from tonight have said some very tough and uncomplimentary things about their own district attorney, Michael Nifong. I want you to know that our staff contacted his office, trying to get some kind of response. He declined all opportunities to respond.

We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we're going to take a look at the prosecution, the defense, even the players' families having gone on camera to talk about the case, but not the accuser. Coming up, a rare interview with the woman's cousin, and why her family thinks all of the charges against the players will eventually be dropped.


ZAHN: We're back now with more of our "Out in the Open" special, "The Duke Assault Case: A Question of Race."

We are in Durham, North Carolina in front of the courthouses where this case has unfolded over the past year.

The one person we have never heard from is the accuser herself. But we have heard plenty about her. Like so much else in this case, there are a lot of contradictions. She is a 20-something mother trying to raise her children on her own while trying to better herself while going to college, or she's a troubled woman who makes money by stripping, was falling down drunk the night of the alleged assault, and has changed her story at least three times. And she just had her third child this month.

She hasn't spoken publicly, but we're going to hear from someone very close to her tonight. Our Jason Carroll has interviewed the accuser's cousin, and he joins me now from the Duke campus with that interview -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, I spoke to the victim's cousin yesterday, sat down with her, and she does believe that the Duke lacrosse players sexually assaulted her cousin. But at this point, she and her cousin believe that the district attorney has made so many mistakes, justice for them may not be possible.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel, I should say, that he used this as an opportunity to get re-elected, and I think it's unfortunate not only for my cousin but for the people of Durham, the black people of Durham who've been -- we feel duped. He went on television and did interview after interview, and led us to believe that he was going to, you know -- my cousin would be vindicated. And now I think the case has just become like a laughing stock. But I believe in my heart that she is not the type of person to just fabricate this story.

CARROLL: How do you think race played a role in the way that this case played out?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Initially, I felt, as everyone else felt, that it was an issue of privilege and underprivilege.

CARROLL: When you hear all of the race -- the racial rhetoric that seems to be circulating surrounding this case, what does that make you think?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's unfortunate that it's turned into race. But it's always been there. It sensationalizes the story. You know, it's got class and it's got race in it. And I think from day one, a lot of people felt that these were privileged young white boys, who felt like they could treat these young women, strippers or not -- I think they had the mentality that they were superior to these young women. And I think that's unfortunate. And I think that that's just the world we live in.

CARROLL: How do you think this case is ultimately going to play itself out, now that it's in the hands of the attorney general's office?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think honestly, and I bite my cheek when I say this, that eventually the other charges will be dropped. Because to me, I think that with Nifong, the things he's done, and the mistakes he's made, eventually the other charges will be dropped and my cousin will be labeled -- not that she already isn't -- you know, this lying, manipulating, troubled young woman, which is so far from the truth. It is so far from the truth. But I think people want to make this go away.

CARROLL: If you could sum up at this point how your cousin is feeling at this point, how would that be?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She no longer wants to be public enemy number one in this situation. You know, I think pretty soon she's going to start speaking out. And she has representation now. So I think, you know, some things are going to change. I think in 2007 she's going to have to, you know, pull up her bootstraps and get out here and stop letting people kick the dirt on her and slay her name.


CARROLL: We reached out to Nifong's office several times, Paula, but our calls went unanswered. Despite the problems with his case, the accuser's cousin says she still has some slim hope that justice will rule in their favor -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jason Carroll, fascinating conversation.


Of course, lacrosse is back at Duke University. Coming up, I'll ask the brand new coach how the case has affected his team and how he's helping to move on.

Hi, coach.


ZAHN: And welcome back.

As we mentioned a little bit earlier on, we asked a representative from Duke to join us tonight. The school declined. But the new coach of the lacrosse team is with us tonight.

John Danowski began coaching the team last August.

Delighted to have you with us tonight.


ZAHN: Our pleasure.

Now, I recognize that you did not recruit, nor did you coach the three accused players who are accused of this rape, but you have been in touch with them. What do they say about the status of this case and where they are in their lives?

DANOWSKI: They don't mention too much to me. It's -- you know, the nature of the relationship is somewhat unique in that I didn't recruit them to Duke, I didn't spend a lot of time, you know, with them certainly on the field or in practice, in the locker room, in an office. So the -- really the conversations are more cordial, more to lend support, to be there for them, but not one of prying or a lot of information flowing really back and forth.

ZAHN: So did they ever react to you that the rape charges were at one point eventually dropped, and now they face other charges, including kidnapping, down the road? Did they ever talk in those kinds of specifics?

DANOWSKI: No. No. You know, I was here, you know, when the last hearing was held and got an opportunity to witness, you know, what that was about. And then, you know, what I heard, the information that the charges were dropped, you know, left messages, but had very little contact as, you know, a lot of people were flooding, I'm sure, their phones and trying to get in touch with them and so on.

ZAHN: You certainly understand better than most parents how this has affected the soul of this team. Your son played with these three young men...


ZAHN: ... for two years. How has it affected this team? How humiliated are they by all the controversy swirling around the team and, particularly, the attention on athletes?

DANOWSKI: You know, one of the things I think that I've been pretty amazed by is their consistency from what I know, you know, from last spring, you know, until today. You know, in school, academically they performed, you know, over and above last spring. All their seniors graduated. This past fall, you know, when I took over, 86 percent of the guys had a 3.0 or better. They did over 500 hours of community service. If something is bothering them, they're not really letting it show. You know, they've been extremely focused.

ZAHN: Well, Coach John Danowski, thank you for dropping by tonight.

DANOWSKI: Thank you.

ZAHN: Good luck with the brand new season.

We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.


ZAHN: And welcome back.

Many people we've from tonight, as you've heard, have expressed the desire to move on and find some healing. And that come with understanding. And understanding begins with communication.

We hope that, by bringing some of these issues out into the open, we've helped a lot in that process.

From Durham, North Carolina, I'm Paula Zahn.

Thank you so much for being with us tonight.

Good night.