Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Blaming the victim: Duke rape case

Over the past couple of weeks, the news headlines here in the United States have paid a lot of attention to a rape case at Duke University. The story behind this case seems to be straight from a John Grisham novel: a group of white students, all members of the lacrosse team at an Ivy League university, and most from well-to-do backgrounds, hire a couple of local black strippers for a party, and allegedly lure one of them into a bathroom and brutally gang-rape her.

Despite the heavy news coverage of the incident, the news articles have been decidedly vague on what actually happened. Perhaps the best source of information is the Probable Cause section of the search warrant that was used to search one Duke lacrosse player's dorm room. According to the search warrant, the victim and a coworker were both hired as strippers for a private party. Shortly after they started performing, the guys got "excited and aggressive", and one guy picked up a broom handle and told the women, "I'm going to shove this up you." After that, both women ran out and were about to drive off, when one guy came out, apologized, and asked them to stay. After they both went inside, a couple of the guys allegedly pulled the victim into the bathroom, locked the door, and gang-raped her for over half an hour.

Since the case has become public, several blogs and news outlets have jumped on the story, and some have lashed out at the accuser, revealing her full name, and a few embarrassing details from her past, and tried to make her look like a money-grubbing liar trying to milk a few college students out of their tuition money.

It is all too easy to dismiss the victim in this case. After all, she is a stripper, a divorced mother with two children, and someone with multiple prior criminal convictions. One might argue that the victim deserved it because she is working as a stripper. Or, perhaps one might argue that she seduced the boys in an attempt to get money from them, Or that she must be lying because, well, someone with her background who works as a stripper must be immoral and can't be trusted.

But, in all the news coverage about the victim, one point stood out: she is a full time college student herself.

Let's try to put this together a bit: a young woman who perhaps got pregnant a bit too early, got into a bad marriage, and after having two kids, the marriage fell apart. Alone, a single mother with two kids to support, she tries to make the best for herself and her children. And, while stripping may not be a very desirable job, it is one of the few jobs a woman in her position could do that would bring in enough money to pay her college tuition and feed her young family, and for which the working hours do not interfere with her class schedule.

If you dig a bit further, and pull up the victim's criminal record, you will see that all four of her criminal convictions were from a single night, where she had too much to drink and took her client's car out for a drunken joy-ride. The judge evidently didn't think this was a major crime: he only put her on probation and ordered to take a DWI course - one of the most lenient sentences he could have imposed. If you take this in context, this one night of misadventure is not a major impugnment of the victim's character.

Another thing that really disturbs me about this case is the degree of premediation that seems to have existed. Why did a group of white college students specifically select two black strippers for their party? They could have just as easily selected white or latina women. Did they hire these women from the start with the goal of humilating and degrading them?

An even more disturbing thought: why did they find no DNA evidence in the rape kit, even though the victim showed physical trauma and signs of rape? I think back to the guy holding the broom stick and threatening to "shove this up" the victim, and shudder at the possibilities here. It would certainly explain the lack of DNA evidence....

Perhaps the lacrosse players' own words best describe their mindset. The day after the alleged rapes, one of the lacrosse players (Ryan McFayden) allegedly sent this disgusting email, which was later forwarded to the police:

To whom it may concern

tomorrow night, after tonights show, ive decided to have some strippers over to edens 2c. all are welcome.. however there will be no nudity. i plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex.. all besides arch and tack please respond

*shudder*.... And the author of this email is supposed to be a student at an Ivy League college? A future leader of the American business world? Lord help us....

As a white man myself who is proudly married to a beautiful black woman, I am completely disgusted with this case. Beyond my disgust, I am disappointed with the kneejerk reaction of some journalists and bloggers, who I think have been far too quick to lay the blame at the feet of the victim. Let's let the court system and the jury do their job - if the students are guilty, lock 'em up, and if not, let them go.

Update (April 25)

Well, it seems the victim isn't the only one with a prior criminal history:

Finnerty and two former lacrosse teammates from Chaminade High School in New York are charged in the assault case. Jeffrey O. Bloxsom, 27, told police that the trio attacked him without provocation after calling him gay, court records say. Bloxsom, a Fairfax, Va., real estate agent, suffered a cut lip and bruised chin.

On March 23, the day 46 Duke lacrosse players were ordered to provide DNA samples in the rape investigation, Finnerty appeared in Superior Court in Washington on the assault charge. He received a deal in which the charge would be dismissed if he performed 25 hours of community service and was not arrested for six months.
Source: The News & Observer

Finnerty's assault charge was dropped as part of a pre-trial intervention program, which allows the perpetrator to avoid the stigma of having a criminal record. The judge ruled today, though, that Finnerty's arrest in this case violated the terms of the pre-trial intervention, and his assault charge is now back on for trial in July.

Another question is whether this recent history of violent criminal activity will cause Finnerty any problems in the Durham rape case. I suspect it may...

Update 2 (April 25)

The News & Observer has published an excellent profile on the victim. An excerpt:

On March 24, when The News & Observer reported that 46 lacrosse players had been ordered to submit DNA, the woman spent the morning inside her parents' home as her two young children explored the yard.
As she stepped off the screened-in porch, a gym bag slung over one shoulder, she was met by a reporter. Upon learning that reports of her allegations had surfaced in the newspaper, she put a hand over her mouth and gasped. Tears welled in her eyes.
She reported the incident, she said, because many men don't believe forcing a woman to have sex is a "big deal." She pulled her 7-year-old son toward her on the sidewalk.
"I'm just trying to get on with my life," she said softly.
Since then, she has not spoken publicly.

Click here to read the rest.