“Fantastic Lies” is an ESPN film directed by Marina Zenovich that explored the Duke Lacrosse case that exploded into the public consciousness 10 years ago. Most television viewers or newspaper readers know that the 48 white, privileged Duke Lacrosse team members had the bad judgment to hold a party at their rented house in Durham and hired two African-American females to dance and strip at the party. The girls were contacted through an escort service and were to be paid $400 each.
What happened after that, if anything, was the crux of the criminal case that almost saw 3 young men go to jail for 20 to 30 years for a crime they did not commit. The female who accused the young men of rape was emotionally unstable. She had had treatment for same in 2005. She was also the single mother of 2 young children. When she showed up at the Lacrosse party high, she and her fellow dancer performed for less than 10 minutes, then locked themselves in a bathroom. Later, the woman making the complaint, Crystal Mangum, got drunk and passed out. She made a visit to the emergency room with minor injuries and a rape kit was administered. That visit might have led to questioning her line of work and her failure to be a proper parent, with possible loss of her 2 children to DCFS, so charging the team with rape may have seemed like a way to deflect authorities from knowledge of her line of work. [In 2013, Mangum ended up in jail for the second-degree murder of her boyfriend.]
The 28-year-old Crystal is described by her former Sunday school teacher as “someone who made up reality as she went along.” Crystal was not emotionally or psychologically stable. She was used as a pawn by the District Attorney’s office to gain publicity for the re-election campaign of prosecutor Mike Nifong. Nifong was not only fired for his railroading of the three boys, but was disbarred and spent one night in jail.
Many peripheral truths are revealed in the documentary. The presumption of guilt of the 48 players—none of whom had sexual contact with either woman—was drummed to a fever pitch by TV talking heads like Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly. One of the boy’s parents said, “It was as though a Molotov cocktail landed in the community.” Reporter Ruth Sheehan wrote an article saying, “We know. We know you know,” suggesting that the team members needed to rat out the three suspects within their ranks who were allegedly guilty. She later wrote an apology for making an assumption that is proven to be totally false.
Three young men from the team were ultimately selected from a photo line-up (a line-up which violated the North Carolina Durham Police Department’s own rules, as there were no non-lacrosse players pictures in the mix) by the accuser. She singled out Collin Finnerty, team co-captain Reade Seligmann and Kyle Dowd as the three who had raped her and claimed to be “100% certain.” The chief investigator on the case, Detective Mark Gottlieb, doctored Crystal’s initial descriptions of her assailants to fit the three she selected from the pictures.
Mark Gottlieb left the police department in 2008. He committed suicide in 2014. During his career, he had a long history of overly aggressive prosecution of alleged criminals.
The three families of the accused, most from Northern locations like Long Island, now entered the fray to try to save their young sons’ lives. Said one parent, “This was an all-out war that had to be won.” As one of the defense attorneys said to the defendants, “Whatever life you had before March 13th (the date of the party) is gone. That life is never going to happen.” One young man’s father is quoted: “Had they gone to a North Carolina prison for a week, they’d either be dead or wish they were.” The three families “lawyered up.” Teams of lawyers began poring over the DNA evidence, the cell phone records of both the accused and the accuser, and other evidence. The three law teams worked together for their clients.
A neighbor testified that the women had arrived at midnight. The cell phone records proved that one of the defendants, Dave Evans, was not even in the house when the attacks were supposed to have occurred (he was at an ATM machine and is seen on the video) and the other boys accused were on their cell phones when Ms. Magnum claimed they were assaulting her, (as was she.)
Sixty-three days after the party, Dave Evans, co-captain and one of the three defendants, said, “You have all been told some fantastic lies. This case has been taken out to the news media by a person seeking public office.” Even Mike Nifone’s campaign manager said, “I knew in my heart that day that all of this was a lie.”
The case really fell apart when one of the attorneys cross-examined the DNA expert. This particular attorney (Bradley Bannon) had bought the equivalent of a “DNA for Dummies” book and was absolutely obsessed with understanding and making sense of the over 2-foot high pile of papers involving DNA results dumped on the defense during discovery. This young attorney was able to get the DNA expert to admit that the District Attorney told him to exclude any evidence except that which would convict the accused. There were physical DNA traces of between 7 and 11 other men on fingernails. There was more DNA from the DNA analyst, Brian. Meehan, who conducted the tests, than from all of the 48 members of the lacrosse team combined.
When Brian Meehan admitted in court that there was no DNA evidence linking any of the lacrosse team to Crystal, “all of a sudden a central truth erupted. They had to work to get the place where these kids were.” Brad Bannon, the attorney who had made it his mission to understand the electrofarrigam charts of DNA evidence in a marathon week-long session, capably cross examined Mr. Meehan and said, “I felt like I was in a sports movie.” This was a reference to the fact that none of the defense team was aware that the DNA expert for the prosecution was going to be testifying that day, and only Brad had studied up on the DNA to such great lengths to be able to point out where the tests exonerated his clients.
As they left the courtroom after Brian Meehan’s testimony, Judge Smith staring at District Attorney Mike Nifong sternly, the defense attorneys said, “He (Nifong) seemed to not realize that a calamity had just occurred. I wondered if he knew his case had imploded.”
A JOURNALISTIC TRAGEDY
As one of the accused boy’s fathers said, during testimony, “There are no Walter Cronkites or Edward R. Murrows any more.” Even the local paper admitted, “We should have tamped our outrage and waited to see.”
Another telling quote from the film with political ramifications this presidential season was this: “None of it was true, but it got reported as truth over and over and then it became true.” Said another parent, “They wanted it to be true.” The usual suspects who come out of the woodwork—Jesse Jackson, Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace—were all over the case and all were wrong in rushing to judgment.
The team was forced to cancel its entire season and they had been an NCAA contender. Lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler, who stood by his team, was forced to resign; he had been at Duke for 16 years.
None of the lacrosse team members accused would be interviewed for the documentary, although their parents were quoted. Dave Evans, the co-captain of the team who spoke for his teammates during a press conference, said, “My ultimate aspiration moving forward is to make everyone know that they defended the truth. The facts are the facts. The truth is the truth.”
The University settled out of court with all members of the lacrosse team. The three accused players have become involved with the Innocence Project, which seeks to use DNA evidence to prove that criminals were unjustly imprisoned. Already, a former conviction of District Attorney Mike Nifong, a man who had served 20 years in prison, was exonerated by DNA evidence. Authorities are looking back over all of Mike Nifong’s cases to see if he railroaded more than one innocent person.