Exonerated Duke suspect awaits fresh start at Brown

NEW YORK – Reade Seligmann ’09 is sitting in a Starbucks a block away from Times Square, talking about some of the students he knows at Brown, when a woman with black hair, heavy, dark-blue eye shadow and an “I Love NY” shirt approaches the table.

“Would you care for a psychic reading?” she asks.

Seligmann looks up at her, unfazed, and quickly smiles.

“No thanks,” he says. Then he adds: “I think I know where I’m going.”

It seems like a bold statement for Seligmann, who admits he couldn’t say that a few months ago, when he was one of three Duke lacrosse players accused of raping an exotic dancer at a team party in March 2006.

But this evening, Seligmann looks relaxed, if a little tired after 11 hours of work at Bear Stearns, the New York investment bank where he is an intern. He is wearing a white Oxford shirt with an orange tie. His sleeves are rolled up.

Tonight, all Seligmann wants to talk about is Brown, where he will enroll this fall as a transfer student and lacrosse recruit. He asks several questions about the open curriculum, the faculty and the history department, where he will be a concentrator. He says, half-jokingly, that he would quit his internship on the spot if he could start the semester the next day.

After a nightmarish year spent in the national spotlight, hounded by the media and the thought of spending the beginning of his adult life in prison, the 21-year-old Seligmann now has a destination, and he’s ready to be a college student again.

He knows he’ll get stares when he introduces himself on the first day of class. He knows that, as a top varsity athlete, he’ll have to fight the dumb jock stereotype he says he tried to overcome at Duke. He knows he’ll meet skeptics who still think something happened at that party.

That is why he is in Starbucks tonight, spending two-and-a-half hours talking about the worst year of his life. He could be catching up on sleep so he can wake up at 5 a.m. to work out and get back into playing shape, but he wants everyone at Brown to know who he really is.

“I hope that anyone who’s not supportive takes the time to meet me, because I want to meet them,” Seligmann says.

The line may be rehearsed, a by-product of spending a year under scrutiny and giving interviews to 60 Minutes, The Today Show and Newsweek.

But Seligmann looks like he means it.

***

On the afternoon of April 17, 2006, Seligmann and two lacrosse teammates were in their lawyer’s Durham, N.C., office, just down the road from Duke.

A month earlier, a 27-year-old exotic dancer alleged that three Duke lacrosse players raped her after she performed at a team party. The story of a black, single mother accusing wealthy, white college students of rape soon became a perfect media storm.

On this afternoon, a grand jury was to indict two of the players whom she had identified.

All the players had hired lawyers after the accusation came out and were now with their respective representation awaiting the news.

Around 2 p.m., Julian Mack, Seligmann’s lawyer, told his three clients the indictments were sealed, meaning the names wouldn’t be released immediately. Seligmann’s two teammates left, thinking there was no point in sticking around. Seligmann and his father, Philip, stayed behind to talk about a billing issue when Mack’s secretary came in.

“Mr. Nifong’s on the cell phone,” she said, referring to Mike Nifong, the Durham County district attorney handling the case.

Mack took the phone and started talking. After a few seconds, he glanced up at Seligmann, who before that point was thinking his other two teammates were in trouble.

“For some reason, you never think it’s going to be you,” Seligmann says now.

After a moment, Mack stopped the conversation to ask Seligmann and his father to go into a conference room, where Seligmann began pacing the room, thinking, is it one of my friends? Or is it me?

After what seemed like forever, Mack entered the room and looked at Seligmann.

“She chose you,” he said.

His father collapsed, and Seligmann retreated to the corner and sunk to the floor. He remembers thinking, “My life is over. “

He doesn’t remember how long it took him to get over the shock, but when he finally did, he thought: “Wait, I have everything to prove.”

Seligmann said the worst part was calling his mother, who was attending a lacrosse game of his two younger twin brothers at Delbarton, the all-male Catholic school in New Jersey that he also attended.

Kathy, his mother, answered her cell phone as she was walking across the field after the game. It was her birthday.

“Mom, I need you to be stronger than you have ever been in your entire life,” Seligmann said.

“Who was it?” Kathy asked.

Seligmann paused. Then, he told her slowly: “Mom, she chose me.”

Kathy says “the world started spinning.” She remembers sprinting toward her car. When she finally reached it, she collapsed, only to be helped up by Father Luke, the headmaster at Delbarton. Seligmann had called him right before he called his mother, asking him to find her as she heard the news.

As Seligmann, who calls himself “an emotional guy,” tells the story, he begins to tear up. He looks down.

Even a year later, it’s hard to tell the story, he says, adding a nervous laugh. He recomposes himself to explain the rest.

***

Seligmann remembers going back to his dorm room. He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about his indictment, so he pretended to his roommate that everything was fine. He picked up some things and then saw his girlfriend, now a Duke senior, whom he had to tell. Seligmann says now he wouldn’t have gotten through the ordeal without her support, and the two are still dating today.

Seligmann and his father then got a hotel room, where Seligmann spent a few sleepless hours before leaving at 4 a.m. to turn himself into the Durham County sheriff.

He and fellow sophomore Collin Finnerty, who was also indicted the day before, drove to the back of the Durham County jail, where they had arranged to meet officers. (Team captain David Evans, who held the party where the rape was said to have occurred, would be indicted a month later.) They were handcuffed and then driven 15 yards to the front of the jail, where camera crews were waiting, Seligmann says. He believes Nifong orchestrated the whole thing to maximize media attention.

As he got out of the car, Seligmann was blinded by camera lights. But strangely, he felt calm.

“Maybe it was because I was so detached from the situation,” he says.

The two went inside, where they signed papers and were searched. When Seligmann was asked to place his finger on a futuristic-looking machine to be fingerprinted, he remembers saying to the officer, “Hey, this is kind of cool.”

Then he remembered it was he who was being printed, for a crime he knew he hadn’t committed that could put him in jail for 30 years.

Seligmann was taken to a small, one-person cell while his father posted bail. He spent about 90 minutes there. He remembers trying to keep his mind busy, so he started reading the Spanish that former inmates had written on the walls in pen. It was nearly finals period, and Seligmann should have been starting to study for his final in Spanish, which he says is not his strongest subject.

He remembers one phrase on the cell’s wall. “Ayudame,” it read – help me.

***

Lars Tiffany ’90 was hired away from Stony Brook University to be Brown’s new lacrosse coach last August. Almost immediately, he began recruiting Seligmann.

The coach had done his homework, speaking with many in the lacrosse community who knew Seligmann. He heard the same from everyone he spoke to: If you know this kid, then you know he couldn’t have done it.

Tiffany says there was “no way” he would have considered recruiting Seligmann if he even had the slightest doubt about him.

“We cannot sacrifice the team and University for one person,” Tiffany says.

When he approached people in the athletics department, he says there were a few skeptics. But nearly everyone, including Mike Goldberger, the director of athletics, supported him, he adds.

Tiffany is glad they did, because he sees a potential star in Seligmann, who at 6’1″ and 220 pounds looks more like the star power running back he was on his high-school football team than a lacrosse player. (Seligmann says he got several Division I football scholarship offers out of high school and considered playing both sports this year at Brown, but decided against it).

“He’s got a strong, accurate shot,” Tiffany says, “and because of his frame, he can power dodge you, just run over you.”

But what impresses Tiffany most about Seligmann is his maturity and personality. In February, Tiffany realized that the case might soon be dropped and that Seligmann could very well come to Brown. He called Seligmann and remembers the conversation as such:

“Reade, I need to know about every little thing, what you’ve been accused of or anything you’ve ever done wrong. Let me know any detail so I can present it to whomever, before it gets thrown at our face in the last second.”

The line was silent for a minute.

“Coach,” Seligmann finally said. “My freshman year, there was a party in my hallway, and all of us got written up for it.”

Tiffany remembers saying, “Is that it? Is that everything that you got?”

The coach doesn’t think Seligmann will have trouble adjusting to Brown, and lacrosse team tri-captain Jeff Hall ’08 says the team is excited to welcome him.

Seligmann, who says he always wanted to attend an Ivy League school, chose Brown over the other two or three schools that were interested in him because of how the University treated him. They allowed him to visit the campus when he wasn’t even allowed back at Duke. Tiffany, too, played a big role in the decision.

“He said, ‘I’m going to stand by and wait for you,’ ” Seligmann says. “And no other coach told me that. I promised him I would go to Brown if I got in, once this was over.”

***

Kris Udekwu ’08 creates an interesting juxtaposition to Seligmann.

Both were sought-after lacrosse recruits coming out of Catholic high schools. Both played for top college lacrosse teams before leaving their respective teams sophomore year. (Udekwu quit after some of the coaching staff at Brown left.)

Udekwu, who is black and grew up in Raleigh, N.C., just a half-hour from Durham, probably understands the Duke case better than anyone at Brown. He has been closely following it and wrote about it for the College Hill Independent, of which he is now a managing editor.

He believes that when Seligmann gets to campus, the skeptics will pounce.

“Historically, what Brown has been known for is making a meal out of things like this, as far as student activism goes,” he says. Sign-waving and protests, he says, are not out of the question.

One of Seligmann’s new teammates, Jack Walsh ’09, doesn’t think there will be anything of that sort, but says he’s “fearful that people will be ignorant about the facts.”

***

For the record, Seligmann is innocent. He is quick to correct those who say the charges against him and his teammates were simply dropped. On April 11, North Carolina’s attorney general declared them innocent.

Nothing happened at the party that night, Seligmann asserts, and if something had, he would not have been there anyway. Cell phone records and a video of him at an ATM prove he was not at the party when the alleged rape was said to have occurred.

But it wasn’t until the case started unraveling, when the accuser started changing her stories, when DNA evidence didn’t match those of the Duke suspects, that people began to believe him.

A moment of relief came on Dec. 22, 2006. Seligmann was spending the holidays with his family in London when he received a Facebook message.

“They dropped the rape charges. It’s over,” the message read. It was from the girlfriend of Seligmann’s brother.

Seligmann didn’t quite understand what that meant, so he called his lawyer. He then found out that Nifong had dropped the rape charges against the three but that the prosecutor was still pursuing kidnapping and sexual offense charges.

“It kind of hit me in the stomach, because it wasn’t over at all,” Seligmann says. Instead, he became even more frustrated at Nifong’s persistence in the absence of evidence.

When Seligmann returned from London, he rejected an offer to return to Duke. He wasn’t interested, he says, and couldn’t have attended classes with the case looming over him. Instead, he continued what he had been doing: helping coach football and lacrosse at Delbarton and volunteering at a soup kitchen near his hometown of Essex Fells, N.J.

At the kitchen, he says, people would often come up to him and say, “Do I know you from somewhere?” Seligmann says many recognized him, and most offered words of support. Though it’s hard to believe, he says no one confronted him during the ordeal, though he received a few e-mails from strangers who suggested what would happen to him if he went to prison.

Seligmann’s new notoriety was strange at first, but he got used to it. He says he would often be on the treadmill at the gym, when CNN would suddenly flash his face across the screen. He tried to ignore the faces that turned toward him when that happened.

The strangest incident occurred right after he attended his first recruiting trip at Brown. He was at an interview for a business internship in Jersey City, N.J. Someone was showing him how to use a Bloomberg computer terminal when a Bloomberg News alert scrolled across the ticker on the top of everyone’s screen.

“Duke suspect Seligmann recruited by Brown,” it read.

Again, everyone turned to look at Seligmann.

***

Seligmann is gregarious, eloquent and unfailingly polite. But he is unforgiving about two subjects: Nifong and the accuser.

Nifong apologized to the Duke players and their families last month, when he spoke before the North Carolina State Bar’s disciplinary hearing panel. But Seligmann has no sympathy for the former district attorney, who has since been disbarred and suspended from his position.

“I’ll never accept an apology from him,” Seligmann says. “It’s been too hard of a year.”

When asked what he thinks of Nifong, Seligmann breaks eye contact and appears upset. He says he has nothing more to say about him, adding that the state attorney general, who called Nifong a “rogue prosecutor,” put it best.

Seligmann is similarly mum about his accuser, who picked Seligmann out of a lineup. He says he wouldn’t accept an apology from her, either, but declines to say more.

Seligmann also does not want to talk about Duke, about how it suspended the team’s season shortly after the accusations broke, and about how it how suspended Finnerty and him from school when the case started. (Evans was allowed to graduate.)

“It’s all about Brown now,” he says.

***

Seligmann was an honors student at Duke, a history major who made the Atlantic Coast Conference honor roll in his two years at the university, even though he had to complete his final semester at Duke from home, over the Internet.

He plans to study history at Brown and is considering adding economics as a second concentration. His internship at Bear Stearns has gotten him more interested in business, he says, but his heart, especially after the past year, is in law.

Seligmann knows some resent the three accused players for having the resources to battle the legal system. He is unapologetic about it, but after the Duke case, he realizes more than ever how economics plays a role in law.

Seligmann says he and the two accused teammates plan to one day work with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating prisoners through DNA testing, or something similar.

His goal, he says, is to work toward making sure that something like the Duke case never happens again, that innocent people never have to go through what he went through, regardless of their financial situation.

At Brown, he promises to start a club related to the Innocence Project, and to devote much of his time to its cause.

When asked if he’s comfortable making a promise, with the Brown community and much of the nation watching, Seligmann doesn’t hesitate to respond.

“They’ll be watching me anyway,” he says.