Writing in the latest issue of Commentary magazine, Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson explains why a new book on the infamous Duke lacrosse case fails miserably, especially because of its reliance on the recollection of disgraced former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.
The lacrosse case generated the backlash it did because it illustrated the breakdown of institutions that purport to offer a dispassionate commitment to the truth. Professors at an elite university, obsessed with themes of race, class, and gender, abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process to exploit their own students’ distress. Journalists from the New York Times to the local newspaper in Durham seemed to view their central task as propping up Nifong’s case by any means necessary, lest a false accusation contradict their editors’ (and many of their readers’) ideological biases. North Carolina civil-rights activists set aside their longstanding calls for fair treatment of criminal suspects to bolster whatever version of events Mangum happened to be offering.
[Author William] Cohan isn’t much interested in these aspects of the story, but any book on the lacrosse case must address such matters. The Price of Silence covers them in a slipshod fashion, cutting and pasting lengthy excerpts of remarks from key figures, or summarizing, one after another, items that appeared in various publications (including my own blog on the case). In his acknowledgements, Cohan thanks his research assistant, who presumably did yeoman’s work compiling the many snippets that the book uses. But readers deserve more than mind-numbing, context-free synopses of dozens of articles or columns or blog posts.
Such analysis, however, might have distracted from the book’s emphasis on rehabilitating Nifong’s reputation. Indeed, The Price of Silence makes sense only if readers go along with Cohan in assuming that Nifong, a convicted liar, is an honest man who can guide outsiders through the facts of the case. In this respect, the timing of the book, published on April 8, was particularly unfortunate. On March 20, the Washington Post ran an exposé by Radley Balko suggesting that, in the 1990s, Nifong committed ethical transgressions in the conviction of an innocent man for murder. The Duke case thus appears not to have been the first time that Nifong crossed ethical lines in court. Cohan nonetheless minimizes the overwhelming indications that the whole affair was a hoax and presents Nifong’s musings uncorroborated. …
… Cohan’s whitewashing the record of a deeply unethical prosecutor and his disturbing willingness to cast doubt on innocent people can, and should, be dismissed. But the author’s actions touch on one of the most interesting questions of the lacrosse case: why so many people (here, Cohan merely joins Duke faculty extremists, various mainstream reporters, and local civil-rights activists) aggressively attached their professional reputations to a charlatan like Nifong.