No Class: Where are the Duke Apologies

How many apologies are owed to David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, the three Duke University students falsely accused of raping a stag party stripper who imagined the entire story?

The rapidly expanding list now includes the Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong, the New York Times, Duke University, every one of the 88 Duke professors who signed an ad shortly after the arrests implying guilt, students at Duke who distributed posters across campus comparing the three lacrosse players to Hitler (a repugnant comparison by any measure), Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, the NAACP and every journalist who jumped on the "guilty" bandwagon with premature conclusions about a gang rape by a bunch of white, privileged university hooligans.

Sadly, appropriate apologies have not been issued—no one from this group has said "sorry". The only partial exception is DA Michael Nifong's very weak attempt to apologize for some of his actions in this case—actions that will almost certainly lead to disbarment, ethics and perhaps even criminal charges.

For reasons no doubt tied to courting the African American vote in his bid to get re-elected as a District Attorney of predominantly black Durham County, Nifong essentially presumed guilt from the outset without even having interviewed the accuser. More alarmingly, Nifong refused to review the defendants' case and went out of his way to HIDE exculpatory DNA evidence that completely exonerated the three Duke students.

Yet, despite the absence of evidence and, more importantly, the proof of innocence, Nifong claimed:

There's no doubt in my mind that she was raped and assaulted at this location.

With all of this in mind consider how woefully inadequate his apology is:

To the extent that I made judgments that ultimately proved to be incorrect, I apologize to the three students that were wrongly accused. I also understand that whenever someone has been wrongly accused, the harm caused by the accusations might not be immediately undone merely by dismissing them. It is my sincere desire that the actions of Attorney General Cooper will serve to remedy any remaining injury that has resulted from these cases.

Jim Cooney, an attorney for one of the Duke lacrosse students, commented:

You can accept an apology from someone who knows all the facts and simply makes an error. If a person refuses to know all the facts and then makes a judgment, that's far worse particularly when that judgment destroys lives.

What makes the absence of apologies in this case so disturbing is the fact that the North Carolina Attorney General, Roy Cooper, declared the students completely "innocent" of all charges—a decision that carries a very powerful message about how completely wrong everyone was.

This isn't a case of a dismissal because of the absence of sufficient evidence to move forward; the conclusion here is that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support the accusations everyone assumed were true. If there was ever a reason to extend a series of apologies this is it.

And Nifong is not the only one responsible for destroying these three families by presuming guilt—88 Duke Professors should apologize for an ad they published shortly after the arrests:

The anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment's extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday...These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves.

To suggest that this statement could be interpreted as anything other than a pretty clear declaration of guilt would be disingenuous in the extreme. What other possible reason would they have to make that statement?

We know now that nothing happened to this young woman, and certainly nothing to suggest that this case had anything whatsoever to do with the very legitimate causes these professors and students were trying to address—a culture of racisms and sexism on university campuses. They should not only issue apologies to the Duke Lacrosse students for getting it so wrong, but to anyone who is committed to addressing these important causes.

Instead, the professors issued a follow-up letter that refused to apologize:

There have been public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologize for it, as well as calls for action against them and attacks on their character. We reject all of these. We think the ad's authors were right to give voice to the students quoted, whose suffering is real. We also acknowledge the pain that has been generated by what we believe is a misperception that the authors of the ad prejudged the rape case.

Even as a defence for not apologizing this is a very weak and disturbing response. It references the pain these professors are suffering for the role they played in destroying the lives of these three students, but completely ignores the pain and suffering experienced by the students and their families over the last year.

Obviously there are serious cases of sexism and racism across university campuses, but it is precisely because these things happen that 'professors' should be very careful about the cases they use to make that point. If these professors don't separate the important and legitimate cases from those that are fabricated, or fail to apologize for making that mistake, then they will have done a serious disservice to the very causes they claim to be defending.

Moreover, these 88 'professors' should understand how the Duke case represents a far more dangerous societal threat that transcends and encompasses concerns about rape, racism and sexism—namely, a failure to live up to the fundamental tenet of the entire criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence. If we get this basic principle wrong what hope is there to resolve real problems of racisms and sexism?

It is unfortunate, not to mention a little frightening, that so many faculty at one of the most prestigious universities in the world are not smart enough (or sufficiently principled) to understand this basic point.

Finally, the New York Times should also apologize for their coverage of the case. In an editorial they published, the NYT offered the following argument:

By disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants, the defense has created an image of a case heading for the rocks. But an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong's case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.

Most of us assume that university professors take seriously their obligation to uncover the truth, but we also expect the editors of one of the most respected newspapers in the world to apply certain standards of evidence, accuracy and balance in their news coverage. The New York Times failed in this regard, yet no apologies have been issued by the paper and none appears to be forthcoming.

Now, should any of these individuals, journalists, professors, university administrators or media executives decide at some point in the future to issue apologies to these three students, the team at perfectapology.com is happy to offer this free advice.

First, make sure your apologies include most of the following ingredients: a description of the error; acknowledgment of the offense; acceptance of responsibility; a willingness to own the mistake; an explanation; regret, humility and remorse; a request to be forgiven; a credible effort to prevent the error from happening again; and some form of compensation.

Second, different combinations of key ingredients will be more effective for some offenders in the Duke case. For example, Duke University's perfect apology should prioritize 'compensation'—for example, scholarships, additional time for students to complete their undergraduate degree (sadly, one of the three students dropped out of university), re-admission into classes for which the students received an F, etc.

The key to a perfect apology by the 88 professors is to produce another letter, signed by all, admitting to the mistake and accepting responsibility for at least some of the pain suffered by these three students (compensation is obviously less relevant). The New York Times apology should include a formal retraction and an admission that more care should have been given to weighing the exculpatory DNA evidence. In all cases the apologies should include some indication of what will be done in the future to avoid similar errors.

Third, early apologies are always more effective (and less costly) than late ones—a fact that Duke University officials should seriously consider in light of the high probability of litigation in this case. Studies have consistently shown that settlements are likely to be considerably lower if some form of apology was issued.

Of course, perfection is in the eye of the forgiver. And, sadly enough, these students (at the time of this commentary) had not yet received a single apology to work with. They deserved hundreds, if not thousands.

See more of our commentaries on public apologies or visit our research section for some case studies.