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Separating truth, consequences

As a reporter delves into a claim of rape against members of a lacrosse team, she wrestles with her own views on life and race.

VANESSA GEZARI
Published April 4, 2006

DURHAM, N.C. - The story wouldn't let Kristiana Bennett sleep. Later she would say that she kept stepping out on the landing and staring up at the night sky, past the rain, as if she had lost something.

In her first semester at the Campus Echo, the student newspaper at North Carolina Central University, she lucked into covering a blockbuster story. A black female student at Central, a historically black school, accused white Duke lacrosse players of raping her at a party in mid March where she and another woman were hired as exotic dancers. The players denied it.

Reporters streamed in from everywhere, interviewing students amid the flowering dogwood on Duke's campus and trawling Durham's grittier neighborhoods for leads. Bennett joined them, but she didn't feel lucky. She felt sick.

Like the accuser, she was a 27-year-old single mother. A while back, when money was tight, she too had considered stripping.

"I have empathized with her the whole time," Bennett said.

Then, in the course of her reporting, Bennett found people who said unflattering things about the accuser. They offered the kinds of details that defense attorneys hired private investigators to find, and Bennett wished she had never heard them. Now she and her editors at the Campus Echo had to decide what to do with them.

As the story unfolded, the student journalists at Central were learning a powerful lesson: that reality is textured. They knew rape was rape; their sympathies stayed with the accuser. But they were coming to see that things are rarely as simple as they first appear.

"This could have been me," Bennett said. "I'm not a saint. I'm not perfect."

The stark race, class and gender contrasts that drew national attention to the story were real. Durham was a city with nearly as many black residents as whites, where the gentle rhythms of Southern life were interrupted as recently as last year by cross-burnings and the letters "KKK" spray-painted on mailboxes, trash cans and a vehicle.

Duke students lived and studied in stone buildings that looked like churches; they bought salads at Whole Foods and drank microbrews in bars along Ninth Street. A few miles away at Central, dusty office furniture piled up in cramped hallways, and a student at the Campus Echo asked her faculty adviser, only half in jest, if he could lend her gas money.

Bennett understood these contrasts particularly well because she embodied them. Her mother was white, her father black. She left her middle-class home at 18, taught preschool, gave birth to a son. Now she lived in a Section 8 apartment and bought groceries with food stamps. She had planned to study one semester at Central before transferring to the University of North Carolina.

"I looked down on Central," she said. "I was like, "It's a black school. It's ghetto as hell.' But I fell in love with it."

Then the story of the black dancer and the white lacrosse players broke. The woman told police she had been choked and brutally raped. A neighbor heard the lacrosse players yell a racist insult as the woman left the party. Around the same time, a woman called 911 to report that someone shouted a racial slur as she passed the house.

No charges had been filed, but the district attorney took DNA samples from the 46 white men on the team (the one black player was not required to give a sample because the woman said her attackers were white). A nurse trained in sexual assault forensics and a doctor examined the woman and found that she had injuries consistent with rape, but the athletes said the DNA results would clear them. Everyone waited.

Bennett agonized. "How do you support her and then turn around and give ammunition to the defense of the Duke players?" she asked, after learning the things she wished she hadn't learned.

On Saturday morning, Bennett's phone rang. It was Bruce dePyssler, the Campus Echo's faculty adviser, a gangly white 54-year-old with a doctorate in anthropology and little formal journalism training. Students teased him for wearing black socks with white Reeboks, but no one questioned his dedication to the Echo, or to them.

He asked Bennett if her sources would talk on the record.

You want to use that? Bennett asked him. Do you know how that will look?

In the real world, you have to print the facts, dePyssler told her. You can't worry about how things will look.

Bennett disagreed. Not only did she and her fellow students instinctively trust the accuser, they understood the political implications of doubting her. This case was about much more than the facts, which were still in question. It was about the realities of being a black woman in America in 2006.

"I'm going to give it to you straight," 22-year-old Echo photographer Khari Jackson told dePyssler. "You are privileged because you're a white man, and everybody knows that white men rule the world."

"I'm not going to argue with that," dePyssler said. "But does that mean they committed a crime?"

The Echo staffers hungered for justice, but many in Durham's black community doubted the woman would get it. Already, defense attorneys for the lacrosse players were chipping away at her story. They pointed out that in the 911 call reporting the racial slur, the female caller three times gave the address of the house where the lacrosse party was taking place, even though the address is not clearly visible from the street. The caller said she and her friend were driving, then that they were walking, and finally that she was sitting outside the house.

But when police arrived minutes later, they found the house empty and quiet. Shortly afterward, a second 911 call came in from a security guard at a nearby supermarket. The guard said that a woman who seemed intoxicated was refusing to get out of a car. When police arrived, the woman told them she had been raped.

As the days passed, everything about the case grew murkier. For all its contrasts, Durham was also complex, a city with a black mayor whose school district had just been sued over allegedly meting out disproportionate punishment to minority students, a place where white guys listened to New Orleans blues and Duke students tutored underprivileged black kids. Even at Central, where sympathy for the alleged victim might have been taken for granted, some blamed her.

"They're going to try to drag her character through the mud," Bennett said later. "It's going to be bad, bad, bad."

Back at her apartment, after talking to dePyssler, Bennett paced. She wondered if she really wanted to be a reporter if this was what it meant: kicking a sister when she was down. Then she made up her mind. She would do what dePyssler said. She would try to be objective. She would question her sources again.

She drove to the house, steeled her nerves and knocked on the door. A day earlier, in casual conversation, this woman had said things that seemed to call the accuser's credibility into question; now she refused to repeat them.

"She said because she's a black woman, the odds are already against her as it is, I'm not going to make it worse for her," Bennett said later.

A second source also refused to be quoted. Only a teenage girl agreed to talk on the record.

Bennett called dePyssler. He had been speaking to the Echo's editor in chief and other staffers who didn't think they should print disparaging information about the accuser without balancing it. The accuser wasn't speaking to the press, so she couldn't defend herself. Their three damaging sources had dwindled to one. The story didn't look solid enough for the upcoming issue.

Get as much information as you can, dePyssler told Bennett. She headed to her last interview, still worried they might print whatever she learned. That night, she sat on the couch, treating her anxiety with a box of chocolate chip muffins and a glass of milk.

In her apartment, French impressionist prints hung on the walls, and shelves held hip-hop CDs and a copy of Invisible Man. Bennett hoped the glare of TV lights would bring justice to the alleged rape victim, but she didn't expect justice to come easily.

This, she thought, was how things were: White college students could afford good lawyers, and lots of black people were quick to condemn a stripper, no matter the color of her skin. There was also the fact that even though the Echo would not print the details Bennett had learned, she couldn't get them out of her head.

"I have this sense of disaster," Bennett said. "I won't lie. If it does turn out that this is false. . . ." Tears hung in her dark eyes. The fan whirred overhead, and cars rushed past outside.

"I don't even want to think about that."

Times staff writer Vanessa Gezari can be reached at vgezari@sptimes.com or 727-893-8803.
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