From left to right: David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, the three members of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team who were falsely accused of sexual assault.(Getty Images)
The story was one of the most sensational of the 2000s, a bad brew of race, class, sports, and in the end, significant prosecutorial misconduct against three former Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper. After months of press attention and an irrevocable stain on the Duke athletic program, North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper declared on April 11, 2007 in exonerating lacrosse players Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty: “In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”
ESPN Films vice president John Dahl said his division had been thinking about doing a 30 for 30 documentary on Duke Lacrosse since 2012, but they could never land on the right filmmaker. That changed last year when Dahl re-connected with Marina Zenovich, director of the 2008 Emmy-winning documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," who Dahl had met years earlier. Dahl said he had always wanted to work with Zenovich and through Lightbox, a multiplatform media company run by Academy Award and Emmy-winning producers Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn that has employed Zenvoich, a match was made last fall.
The wait was worth it for ESPN. Zenovich has delivered a highly compelling and well-paced 102-minute film called “Fantastic Lies,” which debuts March 13 at 9 p.m. ET, exactly 10 years to the day the Duke lacrosse players hosted their infamous party.
“For me this case is about prosecutorial misconduct and false accusations mixed with a prosecutor and police department that did not have anyone to answer to,” Zenovich said. “The issues of prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct are very alive and very scary for people who end up that in situation. I hope people will say, 'Hey, next time I won’t jump to conclusions' but I think we live in a time where they do.”
The film took about a year from conception to completion. The toughest challenge: convincing the families of the players and those connected to Duke to talk on camera. Zenovich said she tried for months to get parents and players to do so, but received no after no. The same went for Duke University authorities (all requests for Duke administrators were turned down.) Dahl said he first saw an 83-minute rough cut in mid-July and at that point there was no parents or any players on film.
Slowly, Zenovich gained the trust of a handful of parents including Tricia Dowd, the mother of lacrosse player Kyle Dowd, and that opened the door to others. Eventually, Phil and Kathy Seligmann (the parents of Reade Seligmann), and Kevin Finnerty (the father of Collin Finnerty) spoke for the piece. The parents are far and away the most impactful people in the film. Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans, the three indicted players, declined interviews, citing a shared belief that they wanted to put the case behind them. The focus of the film is very much on the three accused, as well as fellow player Ryan McFadyen (who wrote an infamous email that became misconstrued as an admission of guilt) and the case's lawyers.
Zenovich was able to convince two members of the team—Tony McDevitt and Rob Wellington—to do on-camera interviews.
“This was still very alive and such a painful event for so many people,” Zenovich said. “It was a tough film to make and I am very proud of it. We tried very hard to be fair in the storytelling.”
As for the other principles in the story, Zenovich said she went to a correctional facility in Raleigh to meet with Crystal Magnum, the stripper at the party who is currently serving a jail term for second-degree murder in another case. Mangum agreed to an interview, but ESPN’s request was turned down by the Durham prison authorities. “She still seemed to have a different idea of what actual happened other than the facts that I gathered,” Zenovich said. “I didn’t know how that interview would go but I would have done it.”
Zenovich said she made both personal and third-party attempts to interview Mike Pressler, the former Duke lacrosse coach, but he was unwilling to go on camera. The filmmakers ended up interviewing author and former SI staffer Don Yaeger, who co-wrote Pressler’s book It’s Not About the Truth. Zenovich said she ran into Duke President Richard Broadhead by accident in Durham at an inn and introduced herself.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘That’s a very old story,’” Zenovich said. “He didn’t want to touch it.”
Zenovich also discussed the project with Mike Nifong, the disbarred and disgraced former Durham County district attorney who prosecuted the case, on two occasions (November 2014 and April 2015). He declined their interview request. “I wanted to try to understand what he thought he was doing,” Zenovich said. “Ambushing him for an interview would not have accomplished what we wanted to do.”
Dahl said he believed the Duke Lacrosse story was particularly relevant today given social media and how fast stories can spread. “What happened in that case speaks to a lot of what we deal with today,” Dahl said.