AS DUKE CASE FALTERS, WHOM DO YOU DOUBT?

When are certain people involved with this Duke lacrosse team case going to use the word they seem to be consciously avoiding?

Liar.

It’s a word for someone who tells lies. And so far, the only thing certain in this case is that the accuser has told many of them. The biggest, of course, may be that she was raped. Now she says she can’t be sure. As a result, rape charges against the three players were dropped, charges that have damaged their lives forever.

Yet no one calls her a liar.

She also insisted three particular players attacked her, players she identified from photos. But late last month she said one of them didn’t actually participate – the same guy she once said forced her to perform oral sex. Suddenly, nine months later, she remembers he didn’t?

But she’s not a liar?

Last spring, she gave a timeline account of the party night, detailing about how long it lasted and when she left. But last month – after defense attorneys had argued one of the accused players couldn’t have been there under her previous scenario – she suddenly changed her story, and offered a new timeline.

So the first one wasn’t a lie?

The night of the party, she told a doctor she’d had no alcohol, then told a nurse she’d had one drink, then the next day said she’d been drunk. Three different versions. She also said none of her attackers used condoms and at least one ejaculated, yet none of their DNA evidence was found. However, when asked about relations with other men, she said she’d had sex a week earlier with her boyfriend, even though evidence from her body and underwear found DNA traces from several men – none Duke lacrosse players – some of it suggesting intercourse within 72 hours.

How much more do you want to hear?

The district attorney’s saga

There’s the second dancer, who has called her coworker’s story “a crock.” There’s the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who was running for re-election when all this came up and who is now facing ethics charges and admits he kept certain DNA evidence hidden for months. On Friday, he asked to be removed from the case.

There’s all that and, yet, as you read this, the three players still face kidnapping and sexual offense charges that could bring 30 years in jail.

And you still don’t read the accuser’s name.

We protect her. We give her the benefit of the doubt. I understand this as a general rule for rape victims. But at what point are you practicing principle for one side while trashing the other with accusations that keep changing?

No, you don’t celebrate underage college kids drinking and hiring strippers. And yes, if the white players used racial slurs in the presence of the black woman, it’s deplorable. But should everyone who did such things in college face rape charges, be suspended, be vilified in the media, and have their faces plastered across the world?

Because if this case is finally thrown out – as many expect it will be – that is what will have happened to those three players.

And the question will be, what punishment will this woman face?

How the portraits change

Let’s be blunt. When this thing first happened, everyone scampered to their camps. The media, schooled and trained in sticking up for the underrepresented, tended toward protecting the accuser. One national columnist referred to her as a “student and single mother who attends nearby North Carolina Central University and moonlights as a stripper.” Such wording suggests a movie stereotype – hard-working single mom just trying to make ends meet.

But when you layer in other bits of information – that her driver said he slept with her the week before the party, that she admitted performing a sex show for a couple in a hotel room not long before the Duke party, that she recently gave birth to a second child with the father unidentified – well, suddenly, the image changes, doesn’t it?

This case has gone on too long to be shaped by images. Or prejudices. It should be judged by facts. And the facts, so far, are these:

On one side, you have a bunch of players who say, despite a raucous party, beer and strippers, they never attacked or raped anyone. To date, nothing has proved that untrue. On the other side, you have a woman who claimed she was attacked and raped. To date, that story has changed so many times, it’s hard to keep track.

Shut your eyes, pretend everyone is the same color and the same class, and you tell me: Who do you think is lying?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at malbom@freepress.com.

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