DURHAM, N.C. — Duke underestimated the rape allegations against members of its men's lacrosse team in part because Durham police initially said the accuser "kept changing her story and was not credible," according to a university report issued Monday.
The day after the March 13 team party where a 27-year-old black woman claimed she was raped, Durham police told campus officers that "this will blow over," the report said. It said that the woman initially told police she was raped by 20 white men, then said she was attacked by three.
Police told the Duke officers that if any charges were filed, "they would be no more than misdemeanors," the report said.
Instead, more than a month after the party, a grand jury indicted two members of the highly ranked lacrosse team -- sophomores Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty -- on charges of first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree sexual assault. District Attorney Mike Nifong has said he hopes to charge a third person.
The committee's report does not say who at the Durham Police Department cast doubt on the accuser's complaint. Defense attorneys have asked the court to consider her reliability, saying she previously made allegations of rape that did not lead to any charges.
After reviewing a copy of the report, Nifong declined to comment. Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael also declined to comment.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Finnerty's defense attorney, Wade Smith, said he was eager to explore the report further.
"From the report, it appears that the accuser may have given different versions of what she alleges occurred that night and that she kept changing her story," Smith said in the statement.
Later on Monday, in an exclusive interview with WRAL, Smith said the fact that Durham police told Duke police that the accuser kept changing her story is critical.
"It goes straight to her credibility, which is ground zero in this case," Smith said. That credibility of that woman is ground zero."
Smith would not talk about his defense, but said this latest revelation looks good for his team.
“I'm sure that if you filled Carter-Finley stadium with lawyers who do this kind of work and ask them, they would say this would probably help the case,” Smith said.
The report did say a female Duke police officer tried to calm and reassure the accuser at the hospital where she was taken by police hours after the party. The woman, the Duke officer said, was "crying uncontrollably and visibly shaken ... shaking, crying and upset." That behavior, the report said, "doesn't suggest that the case was likely to just 'go away.'"
The statements about the accuser's credibility were part of a major failure of communications between police and several members of Duke's administration, the report said.
It also said that Duke President Richard Brodhead did not learn about the incident for a week, and only then by reading about it in the student newspaper. When Brodhead sought more information from Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, he was told "the accusations were not credible and were unlikely to amount to anything," the report said.
"That's largely what we knew of this story until a burst of activity on the part of the district attorney and the police and their investigation made us realize that there was potentially a significantly larger story here," Brodhead said.
Brodhead and others did not learn about the racial aspects of the case until March 24 -- "a gap in communications that is extraordinary," the report concluded.
But although Duke's leaders were "much too slow" to understand and respond to the rape allegations, the delay did not represent "any effort to cover up the problems revealed by these events, to deceive anyone, or to play down the seriousness of the issues raised."
The committee praised Brodhead's actions once he had better information.
"Once he was in possession of the necessary information, President Brodhead has provided strong, consistent, and effective leadership in a situation that would try the talents and patience of even the most skillful leaders and crisis managers among us," according to the committee, which expressed "compassion" and "support" for the president.
It said, however, that the core group advising Brodhead consisted mostly of white men and that "the senior leadership of Duke was handicapped by its own limited diversity." Noting that the senior leadership was mostly "inherited from a prior administration that was headed by an extremely able and outgoing white woman," the committee encouraged Brodhead "to find ways to bring a wider range of talented individuals to his council table."
The authors of the report "have helped us learn from this difficult situation, and they have given those outside Duke an independent assessment of our actions," Brodhead responded in a statement released Monday.
Monday's report, plus two released last week on the lacrosse team’s history prior to March 13 and on Duke’s student judicial processes and practices are the result of several committees Brodhead established last month in response to the allegations. The committees, Brodhead said, would investigate issues raised in the wake of the lacrosse team investigation.
A fourth committee, called the Campus Culture Initiative, will submit by Dec. 1 its preliminary study of "the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility, consideration for others and mutual respect in the face of difference and disagreement." A presidential council will also scrutinize Duke's responses to the incident, advise the president on best practices in other university settings and consider ways the university can promote its values.
Echoing the two previous reports, Monday's report also found "long-standing problems of campus discipline" and said "the lacrosse team was seen by at least some part of the Duke/Durham community as a manifestation of a white, elitist, arrogant sub-culture that was both indulged and self-indulgent."
It also said "the athletics department, and certainly those responsible for the lacrosse team, did not oversee properly the conduct of members of the team or succeed in instilling proper values,” adding that “clearer and firmer actions in earlier days might well have reduced the likelihood that the party of March 13-14 would have unfolded as it did."
The report was commissioned by the Duke president and prepared by Julius Chambers, a former chancellor at North Carolina Central University, where the accuser is a student, and William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University who is now head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.