D.A. Visits Durham School Attended by Accuser
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. The District Attorney in Durham, North Carolina says he will not drop his investigation of the alleged sexual assault at an off-campus Duke University party. An exotic dancer who was hired to perform at the party claims that she was attacked by several members of Duke's lacrosse team. Yesterday lawyers for the lacrosse players said that DNA tests proved no assault took place. As NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, the district attorney is not so sure.
ADAM HOCHBERG: Today's comments by Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong marked the first time in more than a week he's spoken about the alleged attack. A case that's reopened old questions about race and class in this growing southern city.
Nifong appeared at a forum at North Carolina's Central University, a predominantly African American school where the female accuser in the case is a student. Before an audience largely sympathetic to the woman, Nifong promised his investigation will go on.
MICHAEL NIFONG: A lot has been said in the press, particularly by some attorneys yesterday, about this case should go away. I hope that you will understand by the fact that I am here this morning that my presence here means that this case is not going away.
HOCHBERG: Nifong's statement came a day after lawyers for the lacrosse players said they'd seen DNA tests from the state crime lab. The attorneys say DNA samples from 46 team members did not match evidence collected from the woman. Proving, they say, the players are innocent. Nifong, who has not yet filed any charges, said the DNA tests won't hamper his investigation.
NIFONG: For most of the years I've been doing this, we didn't have the DNA. We had to deal with sexual assault cases the good old fashion way. Witnesses got on the stand and told what happened to them. And the fact is that this case is proceeding the way a case should proceed.
HOCHBERG: The district attorney, along with Durham's mayor and other city leaders, urged the audience at the forum to let the law enforcement process play out. But many of the 700 or so people were feeling anything but patient. Bishop John Bennett accused officials of dragging their feet on the case.
JOHN BENNETT: Why did the accused rapist get a chance to chill out at the Duke University? While I'm a representative of the community, I know people that go to jail for being accused of rape. And in my neighborhood, the police out there, like, in minutes they're in handcuffs.
HOCHBERG: For many people at the forum the alleged attack is symbolic as what they see as a bigger problem in Durham. A modern Sunbelt city that, in their eyes, still carries vestiges of the old South. The lacrosse players attend Duke, an affluent private, mostly white institution. The accuser is a student at North Carolina Central, a much poorer, mostly black state school.
Central student Shawn Cunningham, a friend of the accuser, said too many people, especially in the media, are blaming her for what happened.
SHAWN CUNNINGHAM: You have minimalized my sister to a stripper and an exotic dancer. She walks this campus every day going to class trying to provide for her family. You don't identify her as a mother. You don't identify her as a student. You don't identify her as a woman.
HOCHBERG: Nifong rejected the implications that race or class has affected the way officials have handled the case. And Durham Mayor Bill Bell, an African American, cautioned the crowd that racially charged rhetoric isn't helpful to the city. Some in the audience agree.
Student Jeff Esterling(ph) says he's trying to calm emotions on the North Carolina Central campus.
JEFF ESTERLING: Things have to take its course, a lot of legal proceedings take up to one to two months, it's not going to be done overnight like most students want it to. Allow Attorney Nifong to do his job. He's the district attorney, I trust him.
HOCHBERG: The district attorney hasn't said when he might announce a decision about charges in the case, but he did note he's hearing criticism from both sides. Today outside the now-abandoned house where the party took place, somebody hung a hand-lettered sign supporting the lacrosse players. It said Nifong admit that you were wrong and apologize. Lacrosse deserves it. Adam Hochbert, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.