01/13/07 — What is justice? Duke case should scare anyone who values truth

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What is justice? Duke case should scare anyone who values truth

The more you read about the Duke University rape-sexual assault-kidnapping case, the more you should worry about what can happen when politics and justice mix.

Nearly a year after the case first hit the news, the accuser who reported that she had been raped by three Duke University students at a party has changed her story, been discredited multiple times and has recanted enough that Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong has had to reduce or throw out several charges.

And in the meantime, amid much grand-standing and calls for justice and some bitter words exchanged between two college campuses, three young men and their families have had their lives forever changed.

What is the motive behind the rush to judgment? Who knows. More than one group can be counted as guilty of that violation.

But what should worry all of us is what can happen when an accusation becomes a cause — or what it seems like here — a campaign platform.

The three Duke University students who stand accused now of sexual assault and kidnapping might not be angels — and there might be reason to look closely at their records. But in this case, they are victims, too, of an accuser who did not quite tell or couldn’t remember the whole truth or was not asked the right questions — and a prosecutor who seemed content with only part of the story.

There are issues to discuss here about justice, our system and what to do when someone makes an accusation that turns out to be something other than what he or she claimed. How do you undo that damage, and how do you protect future, true victims from the intense doubt that is fostered by incidents like this one?

And what to do about Nifong himself. Questions have been raised about his handling of the case. Has he compromised his ability to be trusted to handle a case fairly, and should he be forced to resign, even if he was re-elected to his post?

Only time will reveal the answer to the latter, but the end of the case should not be the end of the questions about how this state and nation apportions justice.

Perhaps we need to come up with a few more standards, a lot less campaigning and quite a bit more oversight over those who are tasked with doling out justice.

These are questions every community should consider.

Published in Editorials on January 13, 2007 11:45 PM