Virginia and Duke

A murder, allegedly by a male lacrosse player, has renewed a pattern of some writers making unfair generalizations and some university officials ignoring due process, writes KC Johnson.
May 6, 2010

It’s unsurprising that the case of University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely — charged with murdering women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love — has attracted widespread media attention: A Division I athlete accused of killing another Division I athlete is extremely rare. The last such instance appears to have occurred in 2003, when former Baylor men’s basketball player Carlton Dotson murdered another team member, Patrick Dennehy. Dotson is currently serving a 35-year sentence for the crime.

Yet in the mainstream media, none of the early Huguely coverage compared the Virginia case to the Baylor killing. Instead, the Duke lacrosse case, often presented in false or misleading terms, provided the preferred frame of reference. The Washington Post, after noting that Huguely had commented on the Duke case several years ago, recalled that the charges against the Duke players had been "dropped." (Actually, the North Carolina attorney general issued a public exoneration.) The AP, through ESPN, reported that the falsely accused Duke players had attended the same prep school as did Huguely. (Actually, only one did.) And Emily Friedman of ABC linked Huguely’s high school to the "2006 rape scandal" at Duke. She didn’t explain how the phrase "rape scandal" could describe an event in which no rape occurred.

The Post and the AP eventually corrected their inaccuracies; ABC has not done so. Seeing the national media link their names to an accused murderer because of events fueled by Durham authorities’ misconduct doubtless will fortify the falsely accused lacrosse players’ civil suit against Durham.

More important, the early reporting trivialized what happened to Love. Not only was there no "victim" in the Duke lacrosse case (because no crime occurred), but the local authorities committed massive misconduct to bring and then sustain the charges. In Charlottesville, the local authorities have acted responsibly; the behavior attributed to Huguely (in his own voice) is horrifying; and even Huguely’s lawyer has essentially conceded that a crime took place, though he has termed the killing an “accident.”

No handbook exists for how a university should respond to the killing of a student, much less a killing in which the accused is another student. And on this front, the Duke lacrosse case provided no guidance for Virginia administrators. At Duke, the lacrosse players from the start proclaimed their innocence, their lawyers made public considerable exculpatory material, and Durham authorities struggled to produce any evidence that a crime had even taken place. At Virginia, a crime obviously occurred, and according to police, Huguely confessed to forcibly entering Love’s room, shaking her, and “repeatedly” hitting her head against the wall. Huguely’s attorney hasn’t denied the police account, but has suggested that Love’s death was “not intended,” and thus, presumably, is manslaughter rather than murder.

Virginia’s athletic director, Craig Littlepage, wrote of Love, “In comments made by her teammates and friends, Yeardley was described as an ‘angel’ and the type of person who would light up any room. She was a dedicated student-athlete and a natural leader.” Littlepage added that “our primary focus now will be on Yeardley’s family and the young women and young men on our lacrosse teams.” He made no mention of the criminal case against Huguely.

Other public faces of the university, however, struggled to strike a similarly appropriate tone and balance. On the one hand, perhaps fearful of seeming to prejudge the case against Huguely, the women’s team Web page went two days before memorializing Love; the men’s team Web page still hasn’t done so. On the other hand, shortly after the arrest, Virginia's president, John Casteen, issued a statement that offered a tentative legal judgment — affirming that Love "appears now to have been murdered by another student." And later that afternoon, Virginia's executive vice president, Leonard Sandridge, appeared at a press conference with Charlottesville police chief Timothy Longo in which Longo, much more than Sandridge, upheld the presumption of innocence and reminded viewers that the facts were "alleged." It’s rather striking when a police chief comes across as more sensitive to due process than a prominent administrator from one of the nation’s leading universities.

One of the lowest points in the Duke case came when President Richard Brodhead rejected a plea from an alumni group to demand that former D.A. Mike Nifong respect the procedural rights of all Duke students. Instead, turning the traditional Anglo-American conception of criminal justice on its head, Brodhead announced in summer 2006 that he was “eager for our students to be proved innocent” at trial. (Several months later, after the State Bar filed ethics charges against Nifong, Brodhead publicly indicated his lack of faith in Nifong’s conduct.)

There’s no reason to believe that Casteen and Sandridge share Brodhead’s contempt for due process. But their initial responses to the Huguely case did indicate an indifference to the concept — perhaps unsurprising for senior administrators who operate in an academic environment in which due process is frequently honored in the abstract but not in practice. A glance at FIRE’s website can indicate the results, on issues ranging from speech codes to student “judicial” processes.

As an article in Wednesday’s Baltimore Sun discussed, the Huguely arrest also has revived commentary about the allegedly troubling culture of college lacrosse. Those criticisms have appeared in a variety of forms — ranging from an out-of-character tweet from the normally responsible Dan Wetzel to a lengthy article, entitled “Are The White Boys Of Lacrosse Predestined To Be Dicks?,” in the prominent sports blog Deadspin. The latter piece used spreadsheets to illustrate that "laxers can have a certain cadence to their speaking and a swagger to their step that can really rub people the wrong, assholey, douchey way." Neither Deadspin’s spreadsheets nor any other evidence has shown that lacrosse players are more likely than anyone else to engage in physical violence against people they date, much less to kill former girlfriends.

Indeed, those who make snap moral judgments about criminal cases do so at their own peril — as the Duke lacrosse case, perhaps better than any recent high-profile event, demonstrated. Less than a week after the first national media reports on the Duke case took place, former New York Times (and current Sports Illustrated) columnist Selena Roberts penned a column suggesting that the lacrosse team’s flawed culture explained their lack of cooperation with authorities (even though the captains had cooperated with authorities). Shortly thereafter, 88 Duke faculty members signed onto a full-page advertisement affirming that something had “happened” to accuser Crystal Mangum, promising to “turn up the volume,” and announcing that the affair “won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.”

As the case to which they had attached their reputations collapsed, both Roberts and the Group of 88 tried to rewrite history — but failed in their quest. Snap moral judgments, when made in print, are very difficult to undo.

Attacking Huguely now might provide an emotional release, but accomplishes little of substance, and certainly does nothing for the women’s lacrosse players who are dealing with Love’s death. The criminal justice system appears well-equipped to handle Huguely, and there will be plenty of time to condemn him if a court convicts. Beyond that, extrapolating from his behavior seems as likely to obscure as to illuminate. As U.S. Lacrosse board member Miles Harrison pointed out, it is “unfair for the sport of lacrosse to have any black mark against it because of the behavior of an individual.”


KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and author of Durham-in-Wonderland, a blog about the Duke lacrosse case.


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