Why I...Support The Georgia Innocence Project
Prosecutor in Duke Lacrosse case provided young lawyer an object lesson in how the innocent can be wrongly accused
I played lacrosse at Duke University, from which I graduated in 1999. When three lacrosse players were accused of raping an exotic dancer in 2006, it hit very close to home.
"Duke lacrosse" was the topic of conversation everywhere I went for more than a year. I was obsessed and so was a large portion of our community, and for good reason. It was a case about race, gender, money, private institutions, government, the criminal justice system and so much more.
As part of Duke University's response to the allegations, a committee was created to investigate the Duke lacrosse program. Duke law professor James Coleman was the chairman of the committee and I was the first former player to meet with them. Prior to meeting with the committee, I met alone with Professor Coleman.
During our private conversation, Professor Coleman stated that he did not believe the lacrosse players were guilty and that no one should be surprised that innocent people are charged with crimes they did not commit. Professor Coleman was also head of the Duke University-sponsored North Carolina Innocence Project.
More than six months later, Professor Coleman said the same thing to the rest of the world in an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. This was the turning point in the case and the public's perception of the lacrosse players.
Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong eventually was disbarred and spent time in prison. North Carolina's attorney general dropped the charges against the players and proclaimed them innocent.
As Professor Coleman pointed out in that and subsequent interviews, if affluent white kids from nice towns, educated at a powerful university, could be wrongly accused, how many times are less fortunate, often minority, and sometimes mentally ill people accused, found guilty and sitting in prison for crimes they did not commit?
I called the Georgia Innocence Project, and started volunteering, donating and getting our firm involved. Morris, Manning & Martin was very supportive. Former managing partner Bob Saudek joined the board, and our summer associates started working on Georgia Innocence Project cases.
Some people think it's odd for a real estate lawyer to be interested in the criminal judicial system. There are not many similarities between real estate and criminal law. Maybe one is that in both fields, an important skill is a common-sense approach to problem solving.
Initially, the Duke lacrosse case allowed me to empathize with the Duke lacrosse players who were wrongfully accused. After speaking with Professor Coleman and as the case continued to unravel, my empathy was for anyone wrongfully accused, convicted and in jail.