Cohan & Conspiracies

With the broadcast of Fantastic Lies, author William D. Cohan has lashed out in increasingly vitriolic terms to the 30 for 30 documentary—though relatively few people seem eager to hear what he has to say. Apart from his review in Vanity Fair, he did a brief interview with the New York Daily News, saw Slate post a 2014 interview, and conducted a new podcast interview.

As he demonstrated during his book tour, Cohan tends to be more extreme in his interviews than in his written work. So I listened to the podcast, which doesn’t appear to be downloadable.


The bulk of Cohan’s Vanity Fair review revolved around an extended complaint that after he got paid to option his book, the resulting documentary didn’t embrace his theory of a wide-ranging conspiracy between the AG, the AG’s investigators, the State Bar prosecutors, the State Bar ethics panel, the judge, the defense lawyers, and unidentified out-of-state actors.

In his podcast interview, Cohan repeated the complaint, and added a concern with the failure of his face to appear on the screen. “The documentary,” he lamented (3.12), “was supposed to be based on my book.” And yet, he continued (3.35), “this final film contains none of my interviews, nothing from me.”

The frustrated author returned to the theme seven minutes later, charging that the filmmakers (10.44) “could have aired pieces of my interview, which I did with them for six hours.” In case the listeners didn’t hear him the first two times, he added, “If they wanted to present an alternative narrative . . . they could have included me.”

Such remarks come across as petulant.

Cohan suggested that filmmakers missed out on a golden opportunity to include snippets of his allegedly 20 hours of interviews with convicted liar Mike Nifong. He has previously claimed that he would make these items publicly available. If the discussions are so revealing, why not post them on his website?

The author also complained that the documentary didn’t feature any snippets from his jailhouse interview with false accuser Crystal Mangum. He did concede that Mangum was in prison—but could only say (4.04) that she was there “for a different crime.” How many podcast listeners understood that this “different crime” was murder? Why couldn’t Cohan bring himself to mention it?


The podcast suggested an almost complete lack of self-awareness by the defensive-sounding author.

For instance, at 8.22, Cohan asserted, “For the first time, Mike Nifong agreed to talk to a journalist, and it was me. So, what did I do? I interviewed him and I got his side of the story.”

Nifong, of course, gave dozens of interviews to journalists before the indictment. He returned in late 2006 for a lengthy sit-down with journalists from the New York Times (by that point, he later testified, the only newspaper he continued to read). So, yes, apart, from around 50 other journalists, Nifong spoke to Cohan for “the first time.”

Yes, it’s true that Cohan got Nifong’s “side of the story”—one that differed in important respects from testimony he made, under oath, to the State Bar in 2007. That appearance included questions from the disgraced DA’s lawyers, in a public forum, live-streamed by WRAL. Perhaps Cohan believes that Nifong’s own lawyers didn’t allow him to tell “his side of the story,” but that’s hard to believe.

Cohan also offered insight into his research technique (8.05): “What I did,” said he, “was what any self-respecting investigative journalist would do.” He went “back and try to interview as many of the principal people involved in this tragedy as possible.”

That list of “principal people” evidently didn’t include the AG’s investigators, the judge handling the case, the State Bar prosecutors, the State Bar disciplinary panel, the defense lawyers, and Mike Nifong’s campaign manager. Cohan didn’t explain why he chose the unusual technique—especially for a “self-respecting investigative journalist”—of not even trying to speak to these “principal” actors in the case. Distressingly, the podcast host didn’t raise the issue.

Cohan, whose book is filled with hundreds of pages rehashing other authors’ work, denounced the documentary as a “rehash” (4.44) that “miserably” failed to tell “the story in its nuance.” (“Nuance” is Cohan’s code for the AG-AG’s investigators-judge-State Bar prosecutors-State Bar ethics panel-defense lawyers-other actors conspiracy.) Why did the film take this approach? Cohan offered a “theory” (6.22): “Let’s face it, Duke and ESPN have a symbiotic relationship.”

This conspiracy theory is even stranger than Cohan’s claims about the State Bar. According to the author, Duke’s leadership—headed by a man who declared after Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were indicted that “if they didn’t do it, whatever they did do was bad enough”—might have pressured ESPN to produce a documentary that would vindicate the claims of the same former students who President Brodhead (and the Group of 88) so eagerly denounced.

Cohan’s only explanation for this remarkable leap of logic was that Duke men’s basketball games get high ratings on ESPN.

Bu conspiracies are everywhere for William D. Cohan. At 8.43, he bizarrely claimed that unidentified “people” “objected to me even talking to [Nifong].” He continued, “They resented the fact that I went back and really figured out what happened here and why.”

So what did happen? Cohan doesn’t say. And who were these unidentified “people,” the “they” who resented his fact-checking prowess? Again, he doesn’t say.


To the extent Cohan used his roughly ten minutes of interview time, he focused on his belief that even the most unethical prosecutors should be allowed to plow forward, unobstructed, to trial.

Almost wistfully (at 7.45), the author remarked, “There’s nothing I can do to rehabilitate the career of Mike Nifong. Unfortunately, [emphasis added] as you said, he was fired from being the DA.”

It’s nothing short of amazing that Cohan feels bad that a prosecutor lost his job after breaking myriad rules trying to put people in prison for 30 years for a crime that never occurred.

Cohan also repeated his bitter denunciation of the State Bar, who he now claims was “employed” by the “clever” defense attorneys to “subvert the justice system” by getting Nifong off the case. As a result (12.03), Nifong was not allowed to put on his case”—a case in which the “evidence wasn’t great” and in which the prosecutor losing at trial “probably would have been the right outcome.” Instead, the AG’s investigators conducted a thorough four-month investigation, uncovered evidence Nifong (in either his callowness or laziness didn’t discover), AG Roy Cooper publicly indicated that the accused students were innocent. This outcome continues to enrage author Cohan, who fumed (at 9.33) that “innocence isn’t a word that is used in jurisprudence” and that Cooper shouldn’t have spoken because he wasn’t “in the [captains’] bathroom” the night of the party.

(Cohan, it’s worth noting, is describing a case in a state that features the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, whose members are selected by two experts in “jurisprudence,” the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the chief judge of the Court of Appeals.)

Cohan, alas, seems to believe that a trial should occur even in cases where the prosecution considers to the accused innocent, to satisfy the prurient curiosity of serious investigative journalists. In this case, Cohan’s trial-at-all-costs vision would have required:

(1) The State Bar overlooking obvious evidence of ethical improprieties by Mike Nifong, evidence so obvious that it would result in Nifong being found guilty on 27 of 32 ethics charges;

(2) Judge Smith ruling in a pre-trial hearing that the photo array evidence (the only evidence Nifong had against the accused students) was procedurally proper, even though it flagrantly violated Durham Police Department guidelines.

(3) The prosecution ignoring massive evidence of actual innocence, chiefly the DNA reports and the timestamped photos.

Even if the State Bar had been as indifferent to ethical improprieties as Cohan wished, and even if an unethical Nifong could have stayed on the case, Judge Smith likely would have ruled against the IDs.

As the interview neared a conclusion (at 14.00), Cohan confessed, “I believe I figured it out.” But, as in all of his interviews, Cohan offered no additional insight. Perhaps Cohan and Nifong can co-publish a sequel in which they reveal their theory of the “crime.”

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