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12/03/2016 10:19 AM AEDT | Updated 30/12/2016 3:22 AM AEDT

10 Years Later, The Duke Lacrosse Rape Case Still Stings

Prosecutor Mike Nifong's actions stained the legal system.

Kerry Sutton was on the phone with the father of a Duke University lacrosse player when her Amtrak train collided with a dump truck.

It was March 2006, and Sutton, a defense attorney in Durham, North Carolina, was discussing whether she would be willing to defend Richard Zash's son, Matt. He and several other white players were facing shocking allegations: that they had together raped a black woman named Crystal Mangum at a party hosted by the Duke lacrosse team at Matt Zash's house on March 13, 2006.

The ensuing chaos of the crash put Sutton's introduction to the family on hold. But for her, the event was a stirring omen. 

“If there was ever a clue that that case was going to turn into a trainwreck, it couldn’t get any more clearer than that," Sutton told The Huffington Post.

Sutton eventually decided to take up Zash's defense, quickly finding herself at the center of one of the decade's most closely covered trials. Ten years ago this month, Duke lacrosse players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans were accused of raping Crystal Mangum, a North Carolina Central College student who was hired to strip for the team during a party.

The media's coverage of the case inflamed race, gender and class divisions locally and nationally. But upon further investigation by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Mangum's allegations were deemed false. Cooper exonerated the students, saying in April 2007, "We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred."

ESPN Films' "30 for 30" series will revisit the entire story Sunday in the Marina Zenovich-directed documentary "Fantastic Lies," offering new insight into the families of the accused.

To be clear, false rape allegations are few and far between. According to a 2010 study by Violence Against Women, only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false. As Zenovich writes on the ESPN page, "To use this case as representative of a wider issue would be a profound injustice to the real victims who have the courage to come forward."

Instead, one of the most interesting narratives of the new film is its thorough examination of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, whose prosecutorial misconduct subsequently led to his disbarment and brief jail sentence.

Sara D. Davis via Getty Images
A sign in Durham protests the actions of Mike Nifong during his prosecution of three Duke lacrosse players indicted on rape charges.

Nifong was running for election as the DA when the case landed on his desk. He had been appointed to the position on an interim basis in 2005. Critics subsequently said Nifong pushed the Mangum case so strongly because of the upcoming election -- and indeed, the investigation helped him garner endorsements from Durham's prominent black leaders. Voters responded at the ballot box by carrying Nifong to a 3 percent win over challenger Freda Black.

Nifong subsequently said the case had nothing to do with the election. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. 

Nifong was also eager to tell Mangum's story, repeatedly failing to use important qualifiers like "we believe the evidence will show." In a front-page story run by The New York Times on March 29, 2006 -- just 15 days after Mangum's complaint -- Nifong stated that "gang-like rape activity" had occurred by "three people who went into the bathroom with the young lady." On April 7, Nifong went on Dan Abrams' MSNBC show and demonstrated how the rape allegedly happened:

Nifong demonstrates how Mangum was allegedly strangled from behind by one of the Duke lacrosse players. No physical evidence from Mangum's hospital report corroborated Nifong's claim. 

"The minute [a prosecutor] steps outside of that courtroom, they're treated just like anybody else making those comments. It’s not only smart from a public policy point of view, but also on a personal level, to use words like, ‘We believe the evidence will show,'" Abrams, now the chief legal affairs anchor for ABC and Founder of LawNewz, told HuffPost.

"Making conclusions and stating as fact that things occurred -- that is very dangerous," he added. 

Zenovich, the film's director, told HuffPost that she didn't get to interview Nifong, but wishes she could have.

"I would’ve asked him from his point of view how he thought he was doing things. But everyone sees things from their own point of view and they don’t see any other way," she said, adding that she wanted to interview him "without judgement, to understand what the story means to him. What he’d do right, what he’d do wrong, let’s have some self-reflection on it."

As authority figures and public officials, prosecutors are held in high regard. But in some cases, that power can lead to wrongful convictions. A 2013 ProPublica analysis that looked at more than a decade of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen cases where courts threw out convictions after judges found there had been prosecutorial misconduct.

Susannah Meadows, a journalist interviewed in "Fantastic Lies," describes in the film how Nifong gave over 50 interviews making false statements because, in effect, he could.

"You naturally think, ‘Wow there’s something there,’ because you believe in the process," said Michael Cornacchia, Finnerty's lawyer in the Duke case. 

While Abrams said he believes that prosecutors, who represent "the people" in court, should have the right and ability to publicly explain why charges have been filed in a particular case, they must toe a fine line. 

"I think once a prosecutor effectively starts making a closing argument in the court of public opinion, before the case is presented, then that’s when the line can be crossed," he said. "I think prosecutors have a greater obligation to adhere to principles than a defense attorney does."

Because of that presumed credibility, Abrams and CBS legal analyst Rikki Klieman told HuffPost that they both thought the Duke players were probably guilty when they first heard the news, with Abrams pointing out that most sexual assault allegations are in fact true.

"I feel like there were a lot of people out there who were relying on Mike Nifong’s statements without actually testing what he was saying," Abrams added. 

In Durham, long-standing hostilities towards the lacrosse team boiled over into genuine threats and demagoguery. Sutton and Cornacchia both described running through a daily gauntlet of protesters when arriving at the courthouse, with people calling for the boys to be hung. 

"We see corruption with money, but this was corruption with power to manipulate the media and the public," said Cornacchia. 

Most criminal cases don't receive the level of media coverage and fanaticism that the Duke lacrosse one did, so it's more likely that a case of prosecutorial misconduct may go unnoticed. Despite the Duke example, Abrams and Klieman defended the integrity of public prosecutors in general, saying they believe the majority of them are earnest.

Zenovich took an opposite stance. "If the police and prosecutor can act with such impunity that they can essentially railroad the 1 percent, just imagine what they’re doing to everyone else," she said. "It’s not fair." 

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