Local News

Duke Players' Attorneys Attack Accuser's Credibility

Posted April 10, 2006 9:59 a.m. EDT

— By releasing embarrassing details about the stripper who claims she was raped at a party held by Duke University's lacrosse team, the players' attorneys are employing the same strategy used successfully to defend NBA star Kobe Bryant against rape charges: publicly attack the accuser's credibility.

"This is what the defense does, is try to smear the victim in the public and make it impossible to get a jury," said Eagle County, Colo., District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who charged Bryant.

No one has been charged in the Duke case. The heavily anticipated results of DNA tests on the players were completed Monday. Prosecutors declined to discuss the results, which were being sent to defense attorneys.

While awaiting those results, which the players and their lawyers have said will show there was no rape or sex at the party, defense attorneys have tried to portray the accuser as a liar whose story is inconsistent.

Over the weekend, they told reporters that photos taken at the party show the woman was injured even before she arrived, as well as impaired. And while answering questions about their clients' legal troubles -- about a third of the current team has been charged in recent years with public urination, underage possession of alcohol and disorderly conduct -- they have suggested that the woman's own criminal past undermines her credibility.

They pointed to a June 2002 incident in which the alleged victim stole the taxi of a man to whom she was giving a lap dance at a Durham strip club. Court records say she led a sheriff's deputy on a winding chase at up to 70 mph, and tried to run him down as he approached the cab.

She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of larceny, speeding to elude arrest, assault on a government official and driving while impaired, and spent some weekends in jail.

The players' attorneys have also attacked the woman's statement to police that she and another dancer left the party in fear after the crowd became "excited and aggressive," returning only after one of the players apologized.

They say photos, which they have not made public, show the woman smiling broadly as she sought to re-enter the house.

Legal experts disagree over the ethics and the effect of releasing embarrassing details about the woman -- a student at North Carolina Central University since last fall -- especially since no charges have been filed.

"These are all facts that are going to come out anyway," said Larry Pozner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "And the case has enormous public visibility."

But Hurlbert called the strategy "a disservice to justice." He dropped charges in 2004 against Bryant after months of embarrassing reports about the accuser's personal life led her to stop cooperating with the prosecution.

Hurlbert is just as critical of District Attorney Mike Nifong, saying he should have waited for more evidence before declaring his confidence that a rape had occurred.

"I'd love them to just keep their mouths shut," Hurlbert said. "It would be nice to be able to play fair on both sides."

Wendy Murphy, a former Massachusetts prosecutor and adjunct professor at Boston's New England School of Law who teaches a seminar on sexual violence, said releasing details of the photos was a sign that lawyers were worried the DNA testing would produce a match with some of the players.

"If the DNA isn't going to match, they wouldn't need to do this," she said. "It's almost comical that they think a photograph is proof positive that a rape didn't happen. It's not a smoking gun. It's a muddying of the waters."

Attorneys for the players have defended releasing information about the case by saying their clients have taken a public beating since the March 14 incident. The lacrosse team has been portrayed as a swaggering, elitist clique prone to loutish frat-boy behavior.

Woody Vann, who represented the alleged victim in 2002 but is not involved in the current case, said he probably would be doing the same thing the lacrosse players' attorneys are doing. But he would take it a step further.

"If they're going to talk about" the photos, he said, "show 'em."