Back in 1987, an up-and-coming civil rights activist named Al Sharpton, Jr. became involved in the investigation of what happened to a 15-year-old black girl named Tawana Brawley, a woman who claimed she had been kidnapped and repeatedly raped in woods near an apartment building she lived in in the upstate New York village of Wappingers Falls. She was found bound and spaced out in a garbage bag near her former apartment building. Brawley accused up to six white men, some of whom were police officers, of kidnapping and rape, and the case went from accusation to media sensation, thanks to Al Sharpton, almost overnight.
By the time the grand jury got ahold of the case, it was clear that, despite having racial epithets scrawled in charcoal over her body, there was no real incident and that instead, Brawley had essentially made up the whole thing. The aftermath of the entire episode was she was branded a liar and Al Sharpton, after accusing several officials of being rapists and racists, went from being a promising politician to, essentially, a cartoon character.
Fast forward to 2006, Duke University. A black stripper, a student of nearby North Carolina Central University, accused three or more members of the Duke Lacrosse Team of kidnapping and raping her while performing her duties at their on-campus house. The lead prosecutor in the case, Mike Nifong, takes charge of the case and hits the media trail, announcing loudly and proudly that he'll see this to its judicial conclusion.
After presenting the unnamed student with photos of all white members of the team, she picks out three of them and their names and faces are plastered across the media, from print to internet to TV. Nifong brands them, in the media, hooligans that will get what they deserve. They receive death threats, letters of suspension from Duke and watch as the Duke Lacrosse Team first loses its coach to dismissal and its season to cancellation.
Subsequently, Nifong has DNA testing performed on the panties worn by the accuser the night of the alleged incident. However, before the lab's report is prepared, Nifong is advised, by said lab, that the panties contained DNA of three men, none of whom match the DNA of any of the players on the lacrosse team, let alone the three accused players. As a gesture towards exoneration, each member (aside from the lone black member) of the team was asked to provide DNA samples, yet when the lab did testing which should have -- on some level -- exonerated the accused, Nifong not only did not drop the charges, but hid the fact the DNA evidence disproved the woman's story.
Subsequently, the other stripper performing at the house on the night in question also testified that the accuser was not out of her sight for more than a few minutes here or there and believed her story was untrue. She also relayed other facts which did serious damage to the accuser's credibility, such as suggesting that she wanted bruises or other marks on her to somehow corroborate the false story. All of this came out during a 2006 broadcast of 60 Minutes. What also came out was that Nifong, contrary to typical procedure, never performed a proper interview of the accused, relying instead on police investigation details to formulate his case.
Several weeks ago, the accuser changed her story -- again -- suggesting that she could not be 100% sure she was raped (ie penetrated by a penis) but that she was "sexually assaulted" nonetheless. The rape charges were dropped by Nifong, but the kidnapping and assault charges remained in place.
Subsequent to her altering of her claim, the North Carolina State Bar leveled charges at Nifong, claiming that his inflammatory statements to the press against the three accused players was unethical and improper. Once it was made public that Nifong hid the lack of DNA evidence against the three accused players, the North Carolina State Bar further charged him with ethics violations for not only not availing the DNA evidence in a timely manner but by testifying in court that he had no knowledge of any evidence which would exonerate these players.
What's interesting, of course, is that no indictments were handed down when the initial report was furnished to him by the DNA lab; a week after receiving the report which showed no lacrosse player DNA present on the woman or her clothing was issued to Nifong, he still went ahead and indicted the three players who currently stand accused.
As of this writing, charges are still pending against David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. Despite their strong protestation of innocence, no one really knows what happened that night, except the players and the accuser and her partner. Based on the facts of what has happened since the night in question, I'm guessing that there may have been some incidental contact but nothing out of the ordinary in a situation involving a stripper and a bunch of horny guys. While the events of any typical visit to a strip club are not necessarily family-friendly, there's nothing in the ordinary course that warrants charges (criminal ones, as opposed to credit-card-based charges). As for the issue of racial epithets, I am not sure if anything shouted at these women, who are both black, exceeded the anticipated "shake that black ass, sister!" type stuff; but what I do know is that these three guys will forever be known as having been accused of rape in a national spotlight, and had Nifong not abused his position as prosecutor (in order, in theory, to increase his chances for re-election), these three guys would already have been exonerated of all charges and this would have all disappeared, for both these three and for Nifong, who is, apparently, about to be disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct and for ethics violations.
This all assumes that these three men are not guilty of rape or the other charges, which may be erroneous; but in his zeal and haste to prosecute these three guys without merit, evidence or the restraint of prosecutorial ethics, Nifong cost himself his livelihood, scarred these three guys and their futures, and the only one who likely will escape without any real harm is the anonymous accuser, who likely fabricated the entire story in the first place.
It's a scary reminder of the dangers of free speech in the wrong hands; it's not just shouting fire in a crowded theater that can damage people, and the fact is that the name Tawana Brawley will forever be a synonym for a liar, and the name Mike Nifong will forever be an example of the government going after people with little or no reason. The only irony here, of course, is that Nifong is white, while Al Sharpton is black; otherwise, the same tenets of the story, and of this problem, are the same. Wathing an episode like this one unfold every twenty or so years isn't awful, but the question isn't "what will happen to these three guys?" Certainly, we know what will happen to the stripper -- she'll remain anonymous and continue doing whatever it is she's doing. And Nifong -- we know what will happen to him.
The real question is: what would have happened if that were me, or a friend of mine? What's to stop someone who has less than honorable intent from leveling meritless, malicious accusations just for shits and giggles?