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Brodhead apologizes

Standing behind a podium in a packed auditorium at the School of Law Saturday, President Richard Brodhead issued an apology to members of the 2005-2006 men's lacrosse team and their families in his first public statement on the lacrosse case since the disbarment and resignation of former Durham district attorney Mike Nifong.

"First and foremost, I regret our failure to reach out to the lacrosse players and their families in this time of extraordinary peril," Brodhead said. "Given the complexities of the case, getting this communication right would never have been easy. But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they most needed support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize."

Brodhead added that the administration will review the decisions made during the handling of the lacrosse case. He said, however, that questions regarding how a university should act when its students are accused of a crime are questions that Duke "neither can nor should resolve by itself." In an effort to prevent a similar situation from repeating itself, Brodhead said Duke will host a national conference of educators, lawyers and student affairs leaders to discuss how such situations should be handled.

Brodhead's apology was one part of a two-day-long conference at the School of Law titled "The Court of Public Opinion: The Practice and Ethics of Trying Cases in the Media," which focused on the role that media and public scrutiny played in high-profile cases like the lacrosse case. In a roundtable panel titled "A Conversation: Living Through Lacrosse," professors, administrators and media members discussed what it was like living for one year under the public spotlight cast on Duke and Durham as a result of the case.

The interdisciplinary conference hosted over a dozen events Friday and Saturday, including seven panel discussions.

Panelist John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said during the discussion that the media's coverage of the story was unprecedented. In the month prior to the incident, he said there were approximately 3,400 stories about Duke in the national and international media. In June 2006-three months after the alleged incident-there were over 24,000 stories in circulation.

"The media had rushed to stereotype so fast in this case, and it was a case that was a perfect [public-relations] story," he said. "It combined race, sex, class, privilege [and] the South. From my perspective trying to manage through this, the variable that made this story so powerful in the end was Duke University, which had been on a pedestal for academics. When you're on a pedestal you can only fall off."

In an interview following the panel discussion, Burness said the national media's portrayal of the Duke-Durham relationship was blatantly inaccurate.

"One of the issues widely misunderstood in this case is that Duke and Durham don't get along, but they get along pretty damn well," he said. "Everyone kept saying, 'Oh this case is going to make Durham explode.' Well, it didn't explode, did it? It brought us closer together. But you cannot understate the damage that Mr. Nifong has done to so many people."

Law professor and panelist James Coleman said during the panel, however, that the case failed to unite the community.

"This is a case that could have been a bridge," Coleman said. "Instead, I think it has built more of a wall. There's no understanding, and that's too bad.... [It has] made us go back into our camps."

Sergio Quintana, a panel member and local reporter for NBC 17, said the University consistently had problems communicating with local media about what was going on.

"I think the University brought nice language and higher thought to a knife fight," he said. "There were some really great opportunities to show how this affected the University as a whole. It affected so many different layers-from athletics to the image of the University, to the students themselves, who were concerned for the people who were accused, and now everyone else who has a Duke University degree."

Quintana added that the administration failed to communicate this sentiment to the public, which was left with a one-sided view of what was going on.

Lorenzo Lynch, a Durham resident since 1965, said although the conference was informative, public involvement was not prevalent enough in the discussions.

"The conference was too much expert testimony and not enough public discussion," he said. "The public was absent. It's almost laughable or unbelievable that you could talk about public opinion without public discussion."

In his closing remarks, Brodhead said he hopes the lacrosse case is eventually forgotten and falls out of the attention of the media and public. He added, however, that if it is remembered, people should learn a lesson from it.

"Let's hope it is remembered the right way: as a call to caution in a world where certainty and judgment come much too fast," he said.

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