DURHAM, N.C. – Duke underestimated the rape allegations against members of the lacrosse team in part because Durham police initially said the accuser "kept changing her story and was not credible," according to a university report issued Monday.
The day after the March 13 team party where a 27-year-old black woman claimed she was raped, Durham police told campus officers that "this will blow over," the report said. It said that the woman initially told police she was raped by 20 white men, then said she was attacked by three.
Police told the Duke officers that if any charges were filed, "they would be no more than misdemeanors," the report said.
Instead, more than a month after the party, a grand jury indicted two members of the highly ranked lacrosse team on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual assault. District Attorney Mike Nifong has said he hopes to charge a third person.
The report was commissioned by the Duke president and prepared by Julius Chambers, a former chancellor at North Carolina Central University, where the accuser is a student, and William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University who is now head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Their report does not say who at the Durham Police Department cast doubt on the accuser's complaint. But, it said, allowing those comments to shape Duke's thinking "was a major mistake."
Defense attorneys have asked the court to consider the woman's reliability, saying she previously made an allegation of rape that did not lead to any charges.
"The changing of the allegations is entirely consistent with our investigation into her background and our knowledge of the case," said attorney Kirk Osborn, who represents Reade Seligmann, one of the two players charged.
After reviewing a copy of the report, Nifong declined to comment. Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael also declined to comment.
The report did say a female Duke police officer tried to calm and reassure the accuser at the hospital where she was taken by police hours after the party. The woman, the Duke officer said, was "crying uncontrollably and visibly shaken ... shaking, crying and upset." That behavior, the report said, "doesn't suggest that the case was likely to just `go away."'
The statements about the accuser's credibility were part of a major failure of communications between police and several members of Duke's administration, the report said.
The report said Duke President Richard Brodhead did not learn about the incident for a week, and only then by reading about it in the student newspaper. When Brodhead sought more information from Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, he was told "the accusations were not credible and were unlikely to amount to anything," the report said.
That was largely the extent of university leaders' knowledge "until a burst of activity on the part of the district attorney and the police and their investigation made us realize that there was potentially a significantly larger story here," Brodhead said.
Brodhead and others did not learn about the racial aspects of the case until March 24 — "a gap in communications that is extraordinary," the report concluded.
The report said Duke's response was also limited by its lack of diversity in senior management; Brodhead and his core advisers are almost all white men.
The case may have been handled better "if a wide array of life histories and perspectives had been brought to bear on what were sensitive and highly charges issues," the report said.
But while Duke's leaders were "much too slow" to understand and respond to the rape allegations, the delay did not represent "any effort to cover up the problems revealed by these events, to deceive anyone, or to play down the seriousness of the issues raised."
Once he had all the facts, Brodhead "provided strong, consistent, and effective leadership," the report said.
Defense attorneys have strongly proclaimed the innocence of the team and the two players charged, sophomores Seligmann, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Collin Finnerty, of Garden City, N.Y.