Duke lacrosse case: No DNA, but old-fashioned sleuthing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For days after charges of alleged sexual assault were leveled at Duke University lacrosse players, their supporters pointed to the lack of DNA evidence as a sign that the case would probably be dismissed.

Instead, a 23-member grand jury in Durham, N.C., on Monday indicted two players on rape charges. The players, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, both 20, were arrested early Tuesday morning.

Some of the key evidence? A set of plastic fingernails the alleged victim said she lost when she was assaulted.

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The case has stirred passions locally because of differences of class and race - the accused are white college students, the accuser is a 27-year-old black exotic dancer. But it is also becoming a public gauge of just how important - or unimportant - DNA evidence really is.

Tests that pinpoint humans' unique genetic fingerprints are often overplayed as a forensic tool, experts say. Especially in violent crimes, old-fashioned gumshoe investigations, convincing witnesses, and believable testimony still rule the jury room, they add.

"Certainly this tale that juries are a lot stricter in terms of the kind of evidence they demand before they convict sounds good, but I'm not sure there's any hard proof of that," says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, author of "Killer on Campus."

Noting that nurses found evidence that the woman was sexually assaulted, "there is lots of physical evidence in this case, but the question now becomes tying it to those particular [men]," he says.

Two-thirds of homicides are solved without DNA evidence, Mr. Fox says. A similar percentage of rape cases also go forward without DNA evidence, said Durham district attorney Mike Nifong.

Since its use as forensic evidence began two decades ago, DNA tests have been crucial in proving both guilt and innocence in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases.

But even without such evidence, one criminologist says getting the case to a jury is the best way for Mr. Nifong, who is up for re-election in May, to take the pressure off himself.

Grand juries are "a prosecutor's playpen" as 97 percent of cases result in indictments, says Mike Adams, a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

"Racial tensions in Durham are so intense that I do believe [Mr. Nifong] is under strong pressure to move forward with the case," he says.

Indeed, with more than a month having passed since the alleged attack, forensic science is competing with politics in Durham, where the jury will be drawn.

The case touched off vigils, protests and even threats as it laid bare issues of race, class, and power around an elite, mostly white school set in the middle of mostly poor, black neighborhoods.

To many, the dancer's broken fake fingernails were in fact evidence that something untoward happened - even though they didn't yield any hard DNA evidence.

Even with indictments and arrests in the case, tensions don't seem to be abating - one reason both white and black city leaders put an ad in the local paper proclaiming unity in the wake of the prosecution.

"Durham is a very divided city, and something like this, especially in an election year, can really work in strange ways," says Bill Massengale, a defense lawyer in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C. "But I hadn't realized that things were going to fracture so badly so quickly."

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