At Duke, Echoes of St. John’s Case

By Karla Schuster, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

May 14–A thick stack of aging newspaper clippings are buried somewhere in his garage, but Theodore Lynch has never been able to bury his feelings about what happened 15 years ago, when after seven days as the lone holdout for conviction, he gave in and voted to acquit three white St. John’s University lacrosse players from Long Island accused of sexually assaulting a black classmate.

“I should have stayed firm. I should have caused a mistrial and every day it haunts me,” said Lynch, a computer analyst from Cambria Heights, who had originally wanted to convict two of the three players.

Lynch, like many connected to the St. John’s case, has watched the scandal involving Duke University lacrosse players, including one from Garden City, unfold with the keen interest and unique perspective of someone who had a front-row seat for a similar story of race, class and the culture of college sports.

“I have an awful lot of sadness – that ‘here we go again’ feeling,” said Christine Rider, an economics professor at St. John’s for 29 years who retired last year.

It was March 1990 when a black St. John’s student said she accepted a ride with a classmate that ended with her being sexually assaulted by six white students, including five lacrosse players, in an off-campus house nicknamed “Trump Plaza” and notorious for raucous behavior.

The six young men, four of whom were from Bethpage, were accused of orally sodomizing the woman, who said she had one drink and lost consciousness, and forcing her to perform oral sex on several of them. They were indicted on a variety of charges, including sodomy, sexual misconduct, sexual abuse and unlawful imprisonment.

The case touched a raw nerve in a city still struggling to recover from a series of racially explosive incidents – from Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who accused white cops of assault in 1987 (charges that were eventually determined to be fabricated), to the boycott by blacks of a Korean deli in Brooklyn in 1990. As protesters picketed the Long Island City Courthouse where the trial unfolded, the case generated a crushing amount of media coverage long before cable news stations, blogs and Web sites made such attention routine.

“The racial and cultural issues that existed [at the time] were never far from the surface,” said attorney Peter Bongiorno of Garden City, who represented Adam Gerber, one of the six students charged in the St. John’s case. Gerber pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to probation and community service.

Yet what Rider remembers is how little of that public debate roiling across the city seemed to seep into the daily life of the Fresh Meadows campus or its working-class commuter students.

“I don’t remember any discussion of it among faculty in any kind of formal setting,” Rider said, “or any attempt to formally discuss how to talk about this in classes or integrate it as a ‘lessons learned’ sort of thing.”

At the time, the university offered special counseling for those who sought it, but officials said few did. The school also instituted special, required sensitivity training for athletes, but the only public forum on the case was a liturgy devoted to the topic of “respect.”

At Duke, the allegations that lacrosse players raped a black woman hired as a stripper to dance at an off-campus house in Durham have sparked prayer vigils, protests both in the city and on campus, as well as five university task forces to study issues raised by the case and determine the future of the lacrosse team.

The woman says she was raped in March by three white lacrosse players, including at least one from Long Island, at an off-campus house.

Race and class issues

The Duke allegations have laid bare the history of fractured town-gown relations, which center on race and class (Durham is a racially mixed, middle-class city while Duke’s students are mostly white, from out-of-state and pay annual tuition and housing costs equal to the city’s annual median income).

Duke has canceled the remainder of its lacrosse season and will decide shortly whether to continue the program at all. The lacrosse team at St. John’s continued to play as the case made its way through the courts, but within five years, the school disbanded the program, citing economics and pressure to comply with Title 9, the federal law requiring a balance between men’s and women’s sports.

Brooklyn Councilman and former state Sen. Vincent Gentile was a young prosecutor in the Queens district attorney’s office, just a few years out of law school, when he and Assistant District Attorney Peter Reese tried the three St. John’s players.

The case remains the highest profile prosecution of Gentile’s career. It was, Gentile said, the first acquaintance rape case to go to trial in the state. Every day during the seven-week trial, as the protesters supporting the victim marched in front of 100-year-old Long Island City Courthouse, the cadre of high-powered defense attorneys inside employed a strategy that hinged on a grueling cross-examination of the woman.

The jury’s reaction to the young woman’s testimony during cross-examination – she verbally sparred with defense lawyers in a way that many jurors found arrogant and unsympathetic – stayed with Gentile.

After that, Gentile said, “it was always a fear of mine that a defense attorney would get to the point of pressing someone so hard that they would snap under cross … to the point where the jury may misinterpret things.”

Defense strategies

Like the St. John’s case, the defense lawyers representing the Duke lacrosse players have targeted inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s story and timeline. Stephen Scaring, the Garden City defense attorney who represented Walter Gabrinowitz, one of the three St. John’s players who was acquitted, said such cases revolve less around broad social issues than with basic legal strategies.

“No one gets a free ride,” Scaring said. “If you’re going to allege someone committed a serious crime, your credibility will be questioned.”

Of the six young men charged in the St. John’s case, three, Matthew Grandinetti, Andrew Draghi and Gabrinowitz – all of of whom grew up together in Bethpage – were acquitted at trial but eventually expelled from the university. The university said a campus disciplinary committee had found that each of the three had been guilty of “conduct adversely affecting his suitability as a member of the academic community of St. John’s.”

Two others, Michael Calandrillo, also of Bethpage, and Joseph Reilly, of Rockland County, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, including sexual misconduct, unlawful imprisonment and second-degree sexual abuse. They were sentenced to probation and community service.

“It made me wonder then, and wonder today as I look at what is happening in North Carolina, how overwhelming does the evidence need to be in able to convince a jury?” said civil rights activist the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who served as a spokesman for the St. John’s victim, a 21-year-old business major from the Caribbean. “These things continue to play out. Some things are different, but how much different?”

On the campus of St. John’s University, quite a bit has changed. It is also no longer exclusively a commuter school – since 1999, six dorms have been built on-campus that house more than 2,000 students, so that off-campus apartments are no longer the only option.

Once a predominantly white institution – 73 percent of its students were white and 9 percent black in 1990 – the university is far more diverse now. The enrollment is 47 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 13 percent Asian, according to the 2005 Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

And the lacrosse team, after a 10-year absence, is back, with the only black coach in the sport for Division I.

Special treatment?

Programs dealing with the temptations facing students and student athletes are “so far advanced and more complex and ingrained than what was done 20 or 25 years ago,” said St. John’s athletic director Christopher Monasch.

Yet, the perception remains that athletes get special treatment from the system – a notion that still troubles Lynch, the St. John’s case juror. His memories remain vivid of how tensions in the jury room began to boil over.

“I was definitely frustrated and I got tired and I guess I wanted to go home and get it over with,” he said of his decision to change his vote. “You realize that when you get 12 people in a jury room … sometimes it’s about who has the strongest wills.”

For Bongiorno, the defense attorney, the legacy of the St. John’s case is simple: “Any allegation of a sex offense outrages our sense of morality – the very nature of the charge is offensive and when the allegations are adamantly denied, it sets the stage for the adversarial process.”

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Copyright (c) 2006, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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