Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spin Doctors

Dealing with prosecutors on a daily basis, I often get to hear some pretty outlandish spin on both facts and law.  But even the most motivated prosecutor would get dizzy from the spin put on these two former Duke University employees.

First, there’s the case of a former Duke medical research doctor.  As 60 Minutes just reported in Deception at Duke, the doctor was involved in what might turn out to be one of the “biggest medical research frauds ever.”  In a nutshell, the doctor claimed to have decoded the genetic makeup of cancer tumors which allowed him to match a person’s cancer to the best treatment with 80 percent accuracy.  His work was hailed as groundbreaking, but when two Houston doctors analyzed the results, they found something odd: the Duke doctor’s data was riddled with what were thought to be errors.  Duke ultimately concluded (many years later) that far from being filled with errors, the data was being manipulated to reach the desired outcome.  The result, unfortunately, was that patients in the Duke clinical trials might have been receiving “not the best drug for their tumor, but the worst.”  You can imagine what happened to them.

In any event, the doctor is no longer with Duke, and is working elsewhere.  And here’s the “spin” part of the story:  He—or his new employer, it’s not clear—claims that, while at Duke, he made “significant contributions to the area of lung cancer research.”


Here’s another spin story: A former English professor at Duke University had jumped the gun and condemned the Duke Lacrosse players back when they were accused of rape in the now infamous scandal.  Shortly after the accusations he wrote in a public letter:
How is a Duke community citizen to respond to such a national embarrassment from under the cloud of a "culture of silence" that seeks to protect white, male, athletic violence and which apparently prevents all university citizens from even surveying the known facts? . . . How soon will confidence be restored to our university as a place where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence?  Surely the answer to the question must come in the form of immediate dismissals of those principally responsible for the horrors of this spring moment at Duke. Coaches of the lacrosse team, the team itself and its players, and any other agents who silenced or lied about the real nature of events at 610 Buchanan on the evening of March 13, 2006. A day that, not even in a clichéd sense, will, indeed, always live in infamy for this university. . . .

We all know how the Duke Lacrosse case turned out once “the known facts” and “the real nature of events” were revealed.  But that’s okay; everyone, including this professor, makes mistakes.  So when he moved on to a different university, they no doubt tried to forget about the whole Duke incident, right?  Not quite.  Here’s the new university’s spin: “He also was the leading dissident voice inside Duke University regarding that administration’s handling of rape accusations against members of its lacrosse team.”

Amazing!  This actually makes it sound like he was on the side of the wrongfully accused players, and against the University’s collective rush to judgment.  Not so—not even after the state’s attorney general proclaimed the boys’ innocence.

So what does all of this mean, other than perhaps that Duke should implement some new hiring procedures?  It means that no matter how badly you fail, no matter what ridiculous thing you do, and no matter who you do it to, you can always ignore or even change some facts, and simply rewrite history. 

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