Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An open letter to the editor of the Wilmington Journal

Your editorial on 30 October 2008 urged your readers not to vote for Attorney General Roy Cooper, citing his handling of the Duke lacrosse case as the reason to support Cooper’s challenger, Robert Crumley:

"In our opinion, Mr. Cooper lost our vote, and our respect, when he refused to allow a trial to go forth in the Duke Lacrosse rape case, and then declared the three white suspects who allegedly raped a young black female '''innocent.'''

It is difficult to square this editorial with two of the Journal’s previous articles, a January 2007 editorial, and its review of “Until Proven Innocent” from September 2007.

The editorial on 18 January 2007 had what appears on the surface to be plain wisdom, in the format of an open letter to Cooper from “North Carolina’s African-American community, and anyone else who believes true justice comes from the gavel of a judge, not the demands of a mob; or slick, race-baiting defense attorneys.” Elsewhere, the editorial said, “The African-American community wants truth by the law, not trial by the media.” Had the Wilmington Journal voiced the latter sentiments nine months earlier, it would have been timely and refreshing. One mob in March was asking for castration of the putative rapists, and some articles took the rape as a given. But by January of 2007 it was clear that there simply was no case. There was no inculpatory DNA evidence; there was at least one unassailable alibi; and the alleged victim had made errors in the identification process.

However, your January 2007 editorial created at least one straw man. To what race-baiting were you referring? Nothing said by the attorneys or families of the Duke three even comes close; to the contrary, the parents of the players have been uncommonly forgiving toward the accuser, saying that she had had a hard life.

Your editorial also generated unfounded fears. Why you gave any credence at all to the idea that Mr. Cooper wanted to “dump this case” is beyond my ken; anyone familiar with the record of James Coman (one of the attorneys appointed to reinvestigate the case, along with Mary Winstead) would have had the opposite fear, that they would force the case to go the full fifteen rounds unnecessarily. When you asked for the interview of more witnesses, you never made clear what new information you hoped to obtain. Mr. Coman and Ms. Winstead conducted many interviews and weighed and sifted the evidence for months. They found nothing except prosecutorial overreach, and Attorney General Cooper wisely and compassionately ended the matter.

But the key point I want to address is the editorial’s warning to Attorney General Cooper. It said “After all, as a Democrat, just like Mike Nifong, you need the Black vote for any future political aspirations.” Cash Michaels’ review (6 September 2007) of “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Case” claimed that January, 2007 editorial in the Wilmington Journal was not making a threat of political retaliation against Attorney General Roy Cooper. Mr. Michaels noted that authors Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson seemed to ignore the following sentence from the January 2007 editorial: “Darn it, we get blamed for everything, don’t we?” Mr. Michaels then chided the authors for not realizing that this sentence showed that the Wilmington Journal was merely restating “some of what was being alleged about Cooper online,” as opposed to making a threat itself.

The rest of the review is filled with poorly reasoned arguments, yet Mr. Michaels never attempts to refute one of Mr. Taylor and Professor Johnson’s key points: By withholding support of the Duke three, some leaders in the African-American community missed an opportunity to make allies with the defendants’ families and their allies: earnest, if newly minted, civil libertarians. The Duke three themselves clearly understood that their relative affluence gave them access to, not “race-baiting,” but hard-working attorneys, who had the ability to uncover wrongdoing with respect to the DNA evidence, and that not every defendant is so fortunate. Moreover, they have taken a persistent and genuine interest in the plights of others wrongly accused or convicted. This interest tells me that the three young men learned something.

That is more than we can say of the Wilmington Journal. Your editorial endorsing Mr. Crumley gives no clue what your paper found insufficient in Mr. Coman and Ms. Winstead’s investigation. But more importantly, it made good on the threat of political payback implied in the editorial of January 2007, the threat that Cash Michaels denied was present. As of September of 2007, Mr. Michaels already knew of the outcome of Attorney General Cooper’s investigation, and you had ample time to come to a conclusion about his thoroughness and fairness in this matter. Either you and Mr. Michaels had no idea what each other were thinking (which is implausible), or Mr. Michaels’ review was disingenuous.

The Duke case made me suspect how inadequate our system must be at representing the indigent and near indigent when they are defendants. The more I read and hear, the more I see that my suspicions are well founded (Tulia, Texas comes immediately to mind). As long as African-Americans lag behind the mean in income and wealth, they will suffer disproportionately, due to poor representation. Nothing would have delighted me more than to see the Wilmington Journal pick this issue up. Instead, the Duke lacrosse case stands as a missed opportunity.