Over 10 months ago, the country was horrified to learn that the 46 members of the Duke lacrosse team had allegedly gang raped a stripper; they had raped a black woman, a college student, a single mother. In that moment, racial tolerance seemed to take a step in reverse as old wounds of the blatant, physical and often deadly form of discrimination that runs rampant through our nation’s history was dredged to the surface of national consciousness. The horror of the alleged crime incited the entire country into a seething mob, thirsty for the blood of over-privileged white males at prestigious private universities.

We were wrong. We were so wrong. Blinded by the horrific nature of the crime, of any type of sexual assault, we jumped the gun and assumed guilt before examining a shred of evidence. Two weeks and one day after the incident, the rape kit came back; there was no evidence – blood, semen or saliva – linking any one of the 46 men on the lacrosse team to the victim. Two months later, in a report issued by the head of Duke Security, DNA from five other men was found. This should have been our first hint that something was amiss – the prosecutor, the newspapers, everyone should have taken a step back to reconsider the case, yet no one did.

There was no “blunt force trauma” found on the victim by any of the medical professionals treating her. This should have made us reconsider.

There was her extreme difficulty in picking the men out of a lineup and her constantly changing story, in which she originally told police she hadn’t had sex for weeks leading up to the incident. The only time she did pick the men out of a line up, it consisted of only Duke lacrosse players – she couldn’t have chosen anyone else. This should have made us reconsider.

In October, the prosecutor, District Attorney Mike Nifong, said in a hearing that he had filed charges before taking a statement from the victim. His obvious desire for political gain during the entire affair should have made us reconsider.

When the other stripper hired to perform at the event failed to corroborate the victim’s story, and on “60 Minutes” told Ed Bradley that her colleague had not been raped, we should have reconsidered.

As a country, we jumped to the conclusion that these men were guilty, and for what reason? Because they were white? Because they were jocks and frat boys? Because alcohol was there? There was no other evidence.

In the days following the incident, a member of the English Department at Duke wrote a public letter to the administration:

“There can be no confidence in an administration that believes suspending a lacrosse season and removing pictures of Duke lacrosse players from a web page is a dutifully moral response to abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us.”

This letter, dated one day after the DNA tests came back, is not a rational response. There is no evidence of sexual assault or verbal racial violence, let alone the presence of “drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us.” Only a rush to judgment, a presumption of guilt and the desire to punish someone – anyone – to ease society’s guilt over our failure to prevent such an occurrence can explain this.

I do not intend to argue in this article that the Duke lacrosse team is innocent, and I in no way wish to insinuate that the possible crime that occurred that night should be taken lightly. Rape – sexual assault in any form – is a horrific crime that should be handled with the utmost amount of respect and sensitivity. Damaging the lives of the victim and the accused and reducing the chance of finding the real perpetrator by jumping to conclusions and assuming guilt is a crime in itself.

If these men are never proven guilty – not proven innocent, because you start off innocent, and the burden of proof is on the prosecution – then their lives have been destroyed for no reason. Their names have been demonized on talk shows, newspapers and television networks across the country as racist gang rapists; they are now missing their third semester of school, for almost no reason at all other than suspicion.

The Duke student newspaper ran a “Wanted” ad: “It’s Sunday morning, time to confess.” Time to confess, as if everyone knew they were guilty and a confession would just be easier on the world in which they had already caused so much grief. The Duke equivalent of our Faculty Senate, a governing board for academics, of which that brilliant English professor was a member, purchased a similar ad.

Duke is not a much larger school than UR. Imagine if the Campus Times and the professors here ostracized and condemned you as a rapist, punished you without cause. For one moment, think of why in this country people are assumed innocent – it is to prevent these compound catastrophes from ever happening, to prevent mob-mentality witch hunts where if you float, you’re guilty, and if you sink, oh well.

Hosting lectures and workshops to identify and prevent rape, discrimination and sexual harassment has become the latest responsibility du jour of higher education. Perhaps we should begin focusing on the lost arts of skepticism, due process and the dangers of assumption.

In our modern world, where everyone feels victimized by someone, it is important for us to separate different incidents and people and never prejudge a situation because “it is easy to imagine” those people doing something like that. All of the incidents at Duke, regardless of their final outcome, should serve as a reminder that sometimes we all deserve the benefit of the doubt, and before we stigmatize those whom we consider friends and classmates, it is important to discover what really happened.

Kirstein is a member of the class of 2009.

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