Duke Lacrosse Case “A Defining Legal Moment,” Court TV Anchor Says

February 18, 2008

The Duke lacrosse case was a defining legal moment that revealed the weaknesses and strengths of the legal system during several months of intense media scrutiny, said Court TV (now truTV) anchor Jack Ford during a talk in Caplin Pavilion Feb. 12. Ford, a Fordham University School of Law graduate and Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist, spoke at an event sponsored by the Student Legal Forum.

“The most important impact of the Duke case on the legal system was that it gave new life to the notion of the presumption of innocence,” Ford said. As one who spent 20 years as a trial lawyer involved in both prosecution and defense, Ford said the presumption of innocence doesn’t exist on the streets. “But that’s OK, as long as it exists within the confines of the courtroom.”

Ford cited two media-dominated legal battles, the Watergate investigations and the O.J. Simpson trial, as examples of prior defining legal moments in the eyes of the public. But he made a distinction between positive and negative defining moments.

The Watergate investigations were positive, according to Ford, because, “Even though the political aspects were being so viciously fought out…the cast of lawyers involved was exemplary.” As a result, “there was an enormous spike in applications to law schools on the heels of the Watergate hearings.”

In contrast, the O.J. Simpson murder trial was, “a difficult and negative defining moment because the process was not at all reassuring…in the minds of the general public.” Ford said he believed that the legal profession hasn’t yet recovered from the damage caused by the Simpson trial.

The Duke lacrosse case presented an apparent wholesale failure of the legal system, Ford said, asking, “How do you get three people who were absolutely innocent…and get so perilously close to a trial that could easily have sent them to jail for a decade?” It happened, Ford argued, because of the dangers inherent in a system with elected prosecutors and judges.  

Ford set out the circumstances that led to this legal disaster. “When Mike Nifong was appointed to handle the case, most people applauded the selection.” But when the chief prosecutor was elevated to a judgeship and Nifong himself elevated to acting chief prosecutor, he soon found himself in the middle of a political race. “You’ve created a scenario where a man who’s invested 27 years of his life…now has to run for office,” Ford said.

Another question to come out of the case for Ford, was, “just what role does a prosecutor have in terms of public relations?” Ford faulted Nifong’s willingness to talk at length to the press in the beginning of the case and then disappear from the press as the case unraveled.  

Resolving the case seemed unlikely as the confrontational atmosphere surrounding the case grew, he said. “We saw a complete confusion of the lines and it became nothing more than a confrontational system on both sides."

Blaming the voracious appetite of the 24/7 news cycle for the rush to judgment by many in the media, Ford decried the rise of “opinion in the guise of journalism.

“Because of the fact that it’s cheap and easy [to produce] and it generates ratings, opinion now drives much of the news business,” Ford said, adding that “Mr. Jefferson said ‘informed opinion is power,’ but the corollary to that is ‘ill-informed opinion can be equally powerful.’”

Ford noted that the Duke case showed two paradoxical features of the news media. “It illustrated the intellectual frailty and the lack of integrity of opinion-driven news…while at the very same time…further entrenching the notion of opinion-driven news.”

Speaking directly to law students in the audience, Ford said, “There’s a real majesty to the law, especially in courtrooms, through the administration of justice. …And in every crisis of our lives—personal lives, institutional lives, national lives—we turn to lawyers for resolution.” He noted that, “The great irony of the Duke case is that this dilemma, this crisis, was created by a lawyer but it was also resolved by lawyers.”

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