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In Duke case, a bid to tilt public opinion

In rape case against three lacrosse players, lawyers seek to sway views of potential jurors.

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The court of public opinion heard its first real witness in the Duke sexual assault case this week: lacrosse team captain Dave Evans, the latest of three players to be charged in the episode.

In speaking before TV cameras and a bank of microphones on Monday, he not only declared his innocence and called the allegations against him "fantastic lies," but he also showed the public and potential jurors a clean-cut, freshly minted graduate of one of America's top universities, rather than a day-of-arrest mugshot.

Deliberate strategy? Legal analysts who have watched this investigation unfold since mid-March say the temptation to try rape cases in public can be hard for lawyers to resist, but that both sides in the Duke case - with its overtones of class disparity and racial tension - are going to new heights in playing to the public.

"This is all about poisoning the jury pool," says Christine Goodman, a Pepperdine University law professor.

Going public is a strategy that has succeeded in the past, especially for defense teams who want the accuser's sexual history to be part of the trial, but who have been impeded in that aim by state shield laws intended to protect rape victims. Such was the case for NBA star Kobe Bryant two years ago, after his accuser decided not to testify amid public scrutiny of her previous sexual liaisons.

Three Duke lacrosse players - Mr. Evans, Reade Seligmann, and Colin Finnerty - have been charged with first-degree forcible rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault of a 27-year-old woman at an off-campus party on March 13. If there's no plea agreement, they are likely to stand trial, probably together, next year. Mr. Seligmann is scheduled back in court Thursday for a hearing to lower his $400,000 bail.

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