Caught up in the moment

Perhaps you’ve read that Mike Nifong, the former district attorney in Durham County, North Carolina, who brought improper charges against some lacrosse players at Duke University, has resigned from his job and been disbarred by the North Carolina Bar Association for ethical misconduct.

The story of the accusation flamed across the news wires when it broke last year because it was loaded with emotional hot buttons. White student-athletes at upscale Duke were accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper they’d hired to perform at a party at the off-campus house they rented on Buchannan Street, which is near Duke.

It's good that the charges were dropped. I feel I should repeat that statement about every third or fourth sentence because any comments about the behavior of the Duke lacrosse players seems to provoke outrage from those who apparently want Nifong to be jailed at Gitmo for his ethical lapse.

But when this story broke, Duke officials certainly behaved as though something had happened. The lacrosse coach was quickly fired and the team’s season was halted.

I spent many years in Chapel Hill and worked for a few years in downtown Durham. I read news stories and heard residents talk about the behavior of Duke students on Buchannan Street. What angered neighbors wasn't merely that college students were throwing loud parties. They've been doing that since the Stone Age. When I was a student, it wasn't considered a successful party unless the cops showed up twice -- once to warn you, and the second time to send everyone home.

What made the Buchannan Street parties different was the persistent behavior of Duke students toward residents, who complained about vandalism, students relieving themselves on neighbors’ lawns, porches and shrubbery, beer cans and other trash left in their yards, and a general attitude among the students that they needn’t trouble themselves with acknowledging their neighbors' complaints.

The News and Observer of Raleigh wrote about the Buchannan Street problems. So years of this boorish behavior as a background had to have been an influence on early public opinion about the charges against the lacrosse players. If Duke officials weren't already on edge because of the earlier problems on Buchannan Street, wouldn’t they have instantly and vigorously defended the players and the coach?

But now that the rape charges have been dropped – and I repeat, they should have been dropped – and Nifong's unethical conduct has been revealed and punished, public opinion is rushing to the other side of the boat and behaving as though the cops interrupted choir practice to arrest the lacrosse players.

It seems that all we do these days as a society is to become obsessed with the events of the moment. There is no context to anything, no reflection of what came before the Big Event that has grabbed everyone’s attention until the next Big Event breaks. No one bothers to link past events to present ones.

So, as I said, it’s good that the charges against the Duke students were dropped. But to paraphrase Judge Walton's comments about the recent brief filed by a group of famous attorneys on behalf of Scooter Libby after he’d been convicted of perjury, I hope we'll be this eager to jump to the defense of the next innocent defendant who's hauled in to face false charges – especially if he’s too poor to hire top-shelf legal talent to defend him.

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