DURHAM, N.C. — The Duke lacrosse rape investigation is on the front page of many local and national newspapers, as well as scores of local and national broadcasts. Legal observers say that when so much publicity surrounds a case, it is not unusual for the public to form opinions and take sides.
Long before Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligman were arrested in the Duke lacrosse rape investigation, the case was filed in the court of public opinion. By his own admission, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong granted some 70 interviews to local and national media outlets just days after the story broke.
Defense attorneys for some lacrosse players have fired back. From a vulgar e-mail police believe was written by a lacrosse player to leaked photos of the accuser taken the night of the party, it is all playing out in public.
"It could be the state's version of O.J. Simpson," said UNC law professor Arnold Loewy.
Loewy says that similar to the Simpson case, the defendants likeability, or lack of it, can sway public opinion about their guilt or innocence, causing a potential problem.
"Despite their unpopularity, they must be judged on what they have done and not on the basis on how they're perceived in the community," said Loewy.
Notwithstanding the flood of information, a community meeting sponsored by the NAACP urged the public not to rush to judgment.
"Don't let it be decided by community speculation," said state NAACP president Rev. William Barber. "Take it to the courts."
Across town at Duke, a campus forum that was closed to the media focused on improving the campus culture as a result of the lacrosse investigation.
"This event is painful for many people involved, but it also provides a real opportunity to look forward," said Duke University Vice President Dr. Benjamin Reese Jr.
The report from the committees Duke formed to look into the culture on campus is due May 1. But the spotlight may not dim anytime soon, which means even more information feeding the court of public opinion. And to that end, Loewy said it could be difficult to find jurors with no opinions about the case.
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