Category Archives: Sexual Assault

What Harvard Law Professors can Learn From Stanford Undergrads

Last July, Harvard University adapted both a new policy on sexual harassment and a new set of investigatory procedures to respond to it. Not surprisingly, both policy and procedures are designed to ensure compliance (and general harmony) with Title IX of the U.S. Code. IX prohibits discrimination and ensures access to educational programs that receive federal funding.

Sexual violence and harassment implicates Title IX in that federally-funded schools must preserve educational environments that are as free as humanly possible from these things. That’s the bottom line. Harvard is pursuing that bottom line surely in the interest of doing what’s right as well as in preserving an important funding stream. Good on them.

Regardless, a few months ago, 28 Harvard Law School professors signed a statement published in the Boston Globe expressing “strong objections” to the new policy and procedures. Indeed, the principal author has stated her belief that current federal efforts in this area will be looked back on as a “moment of madness.”

My legal betters seem to have objections in two major areas: First, they bemoan what they see as a lack of due process protections for students accused of violating school policy based on Title IX protections. They see an adjudication system “overwhelmingly stacked” against accused students. Second, they believe Harvard has gone too far in defining offending conduct under their Title IX-based disciplinary policy, apparently believing it threatens things like “individual relationship autonomy.”

I’ve carefully reviewed the new procedures, and while I can’t go point by point in this space as to why they are basically reasonable, suffice to say I don’t see anything that should raise an alarm as if Harvard has decided to do away with anything resembling American legal tradition in favor of a politically-correct mob. Regardless, reasonable minds can differ on whether an adjudication system for student misconduct provides enough procedural safeguards. Fine.

It’s their second area of objection (the new definition of impermissible sexual harassment) that I find somewhere between mystifying and dangerously naïve. They apparently object- at least in some way- to Harvard’s new prohibitions against sexual conduct with a person “so impaired or incapacitated as to be incapable of requesting or inviting the conduct…provided the Respondent knew or should have known about…” such a condition.

That’s right. To a united legal mind of 28 in arguably America’s finest law school, this clear prohibition is somehow problematic because of “complex issues in these unfortunate situations involving extreme use and abuse of alcohol and drugs by our students.”

With due deference to this brilliant group, they seem to know precious little about 1) sexual violence as it plays out when intoxicants are a weapon of offenders, and 2) the reality of how victims perceive their own victimization in most cases.

It’s a fact that intoxicants, particularly but not exclusively alcohol, are often used by sexually predatory people to disable victims, ensure destruction of their credibility, create confusion and doubt due to memory loss, etc., and also because a sad majority of people (like the Harvard Law 28) are blind to this kind of behavior, believing it instead to be some kind of misunderstanding. Predators depend on this naivety when it comes to what they do. They always have.

But it’s a far more crucial fact that the vast majority of women (and men) who are clearly sexually violated- particularly when voluntarily intoxicated themselves- never report sexual assault in the first place, let alone cases of what is likely college-age confusion or awkwardness.

Why? Because in the great majority of cases, the truly victimized do exactly what thinkers like the HL28 want them to do: Blame “confusion.” Blame college inexperience. Respect “relationship autonomy.” But above all, blame yourself.

So might a new (and utterly reasonable) definition of sexual harassment lead to a floodgate of aggrieved people “crying rape?” Will “madness” from the government then subject legions of inoffensive young men to academic ruin?

No. Both notions are silly. Yet I’m amazed at how many otherwise brilliant people believe them.

The HL28 could learn something from a recent and brilliant op-ed by two undergrads at Stanford, describing very similar efforts that will be undertaken at that equally august institution. Contrasted to the hand-wringing of the HL28, it’s genius.

Far More than “He-said, She-said” in Latest NFL Rape Case

The rape charges filed earlier this month in Indianapolis against Colts special teams player Joshua McNary are, sadly, only the latest accusations of violence against women- sexual violence, in this case- against members of the National Football League.

McNary appeared in court for an initial hearing last week and pleaded not guilty, his attorney emphatically denying the charges. This is, of course, appropriate and generally a good defense attorney’s job when the case appears to be one that will likely 1) attract media and public speculation and 2) go to the mats in a jury trial.

Like most, I know only what’s been reported and would take no firm stance about McNary’s guilt or how the case will likely play out. I do know, as I’ve stated repeatedly in this space and many others, that very few rape allegations are false at their core, and that rape is grossly underreported, not something tossed around for vengeance, vanity or money, despite the endless droning of the paranoid and/or finger-wagging set. Regardless, that’s as far as I’d go with any factual speculation.

At least one quoted expert though, former prosecutor and current defense attorney Jack Crawford, grossly oversimplified, by all accounts so far at least, what’s likely to be seen in evidence.

In short, he referred to it as a “he-said, she- said” case, a term I’ve come to despise at the same time I’ve simply gotten used to it. It implies, of course, that the criminal charges rest only on the word of the complainant, the word of whom will be challenged by the defendant, leaving the jury in a position of deciding which one to believe. Although a popular characterization of many sexual assault cases, “he-said, she-said” is literally never accurate. I was taught many things by my mentor and former boss Victor Vieth, and among the most important was that corroboration, in some form, is always possible to find and then translate into evidence if the investigators and prosecution team are diligent and creative enough.

Rarely does corroborating evidence constitute a smoking gun, of course; far more often it’s just a simple fact that can be independently proven, and then offered as evidence when it’s shown to support the prosecution’s theory of the case. In tandem with many others, though, it can help a justice-minded but aggressive prosecutor build and then prove a case that a lesser attorney would probably just avoid. Indeed, prosecutors in my experience are often more likely to falsely tag cases as “he-said, she-said” (and thus un-triable) than many on the defense side.

What’s particularly silly about Crawford’s characterization, though, is how inapposite it appears to be in this particular case. The victim here reported within hours of being assaulted. This allowed physical evidence to be taken and an acute examination to be done, both of which will likely favor the prosecution. The quick report also allowed detectives to find McNary and preserve evidence from both the crime scene and his body before either could be disturbed; this evidence also looks promising for the prosecution. Interestingly, McNary appears to have preserved bedding himself for the responders, telling them when they arrived that he expected them. It’s hard to say how that will be used by either side, but it arguably shows consciousness of guilt on McNary’s part.

Crawford certainly isn’t all wrong. He’s correct that the case will not be an easy one for the prosecution to prove. He’s right that intoxication on the part of both parties will complicate matters and likely cut against the credibility of the complainant. He’s probably also right that consent, ultimately, is what the jury will have to decide, since sexual intercourse between the two will be easily established if not outright admitted by the defense.

But he’s wrong to suggest that this case comes down to nothing but the testimony and credibility of the two people at the center of it. A creative, diligent prosecution team, backed with a good investigation, has a better shot at proving this case than Crawford suggests. I’m willing to bet that’s the case, in Marion County, Indiana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Jones University: Another Religious Institutional Failure Where Predators Are Concerned

In 1991, as a senior at UNC Charlotte, I held the position of governor of a statewide student legislature in North Carolina. At some point during my tenure, I had the opportunity to meet and briefly work with my counterpart who was the leader of a similar group in South Carolina. It was a relationship I should have been excited to forge. But I didn’t expect to like him, and for one foolish reason: He attended Bob Jones University.

Bob Jones, in Greeneville, South Carolina, is among the most conservative Christian and strict, biblically-based institutions of higher learning in the country. I had no issue with its basic principles, but BJU had been known for going far beyond most other Bible-based schools. Among a few other things I found distasteful, it did not admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. So I assumed my counterpart would be smug, judgmental, and perhaps even bigoted.

I could not have been more wrong. He was, and remains, deeply religiously conservative. He is also among the warmest, most thoughtful, and most decent people I’ve ever met. He now lives in Maine with his wife and children, loves sailing, works as a medical professional, and continues to live a devout Christian life.

My point is that Bob Jones is hardly a place that produces uniformly bad people. In fact it produces mostly decent and honorable people, regardless of whether I agree with their politics or religious thinking.

But Bob Jones, like all formal institutions featuring strict religious dogma, an authoritarian structure and a generally insular environment, is especially vulnerable to exploitation by predatory people who infiltrate its community. This doesn’t mean BJU and places like it are more infested with predators than more liberal institutions. Predators are everywhere. But they tend to seek out and/or remain in favorable environments. As sad and unfair as it is, strict religious institutions are often excellent ones for predatory people, simply because predators can utilize aspects of them in mockery of what they’re designed for. Dogma, structure, and some distrust of outsiders are not in and of themselves bad things. Constricting things perhaps. The wrong choice for many, perhaps. But not destructive in essence.

What is destructive, however, is when religious dogma is perverted to “blame and shame” victims. When an authoritarian structure allows those in power to abuse relatively helpless adherents. And when a mistrust of outsiders is used to discourage reporting to civil authorities or even seeking professional help. Every institution with these attributes runs the risk of both infiltration by predators and then the unwitting nurturing of them once they’re inside.

It’s not what the institutions want; BJU’s leadership doubtlessly wanted its students harmed no more than the Vatican intended for there to be widespread abuse by a small but prolific percentage of its priests and nuns. Regardless, vulnerability remains because danger is always present, meaning that predatory people (who as far we know tend to appear for reasons we don’t in every imaginable situation) are always looking for places to hunt and hide. The one thing religious institutions can do to mitigate their inherent risks is to value the members of the institution more than the institution itself.

This means being utterly transparent about policies to prevent abuse, and allowing an honest assessment of how much it’s happening. It means making it publicly known that it will cooperate with civil authorities and seek help from professionals outside of its sphere of influence, even if that means risking exposure to a less Godly and sometimes unfair world outside the gates.

But like the Vatican (and many other religious institutions seeking to keep their reputations and authority intact), Bob Jones appears to have failed at this task, with a report released last week outlining widespread discouragement of reporting and in some cases startling victim-blaming by university officials. In many cases this treatment grossly exacerbated the harm done, and drove some victims not only away from BJU but from Christianity itself.

Again, this is the last thing BJU has ever wanted. But it’s what the institution has reaped, at least in some measure, and at least in part because of its brand mattering more than its students.

Rolling Stone: From a Crucial and Embattled Movement, Behold Your Work

I have devoted a career to a growing and viscerally important, but eternally beset and threatened movement to end sexual violence. On college campuses, such violence has revealed itself to be among the worst and most widespread.

I can say with head-shaking sadness and bitter disgust that I’ve never seen this movement- particularly where widespread and largely ignored (or concealed) college rape is concerned- damaged so profoundly and with such speed.

This has happened because of breathtaking incompetence and blind greed, period.

I don’t know exactly where the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, falls on this miserable continuum. Perhaps she was remarkably unprofessional but sincere, paving the road to hell with a genuine belief that she was doing right by a traumatized young woman she sought out for a hyper-sensationalized story. Or, perhaps she’s as guilty as Rolling Stone’s editorial staff seems to have been, green-lighting this substandard piece simply because it was obvious click-bait and a turbo-charged issue seller.

What’s left for this particular story is hard to say. Clearly, there are both discrepancies in “Jackie’s” account and now additional emerging circumstances that must create doubt in any reasonable mind as to the full truth of what was apparently related to Erdely. But does that justify a leap to the assumption that Jackie just made it all up? Hardly.

The idea that she completely fabricated a gang-rape, and then punctuated this vicious, elaborate hoax with a two-year long journey toward healing (including thoroughly corroborated Immense distress, withdrawal, depression, and then involvement in UVA’s anti-sexual assault movement) is frankly absurd absent some profoundly delusional condition. It’s even more absurd when one remembers that Jackie never attempted to “go public.” Instead, Erdely and her editors took her there after seeking out the most shocking example of campus sexual violence available.

And now they’ve left her exposed and alone, regardless of their “apology” (revised after a backlash) that initially blamed her completely.

What’s left for the movement against rape, though, is as clear as it is damning: Legions of so-called “men’s rights advocates” and others who enjoy perpetrating myths and misogyny, are declaring victory. Jackie, they’re insisting, is emblematic of women everywhere. To the paranoid male, she’s a shining example of how college hook-up culture combined with alcohol has elicited reckless false reports from foolish, immoral women who then become desperate to claw back their virtue by “crying rape,” thus filling the prisons of the world with decent, if naturally red-blooded men.

Countless finger-wagging moralists and scolds with ready-made prescriptions to end a plague they really know nothing about are joining them, insisting that, at very least, Jackie is another “mistaken” victim, not of rape, but of the same reckless culture combined with new, politically liberal incentives to mistakenly cry rape when the real issue is “crossed signals” with a truly non-offending male.

For these two groups and so many more, Jackie is the rightfully exposed antagonist of their morality play, either because she’s a soulless liar or just another lost soul in need of everything from religion to hard-nosed advice on “how not to get raped.”

This is the deplorable handiwork of a publication literally as old as I am, and one that’s been culturally relevant and important far beyond its original focus on music (see Matt Taibbi, as an example), but that has miserably failed not just its readers but a theretofore unknown and healing, apparently contributing young woman as well.

Make no mistake; this was done for money and nothing more. I recall my father, when I was a kid, scoffing at the idea of a “liberal media” or a conservative one, for that matter. “What the media cares about,” he would say in an expression that’s now quaint, “is selling papers.”

Indeed. The almighty dollar is what matters. It’s what mattered to Rolling Stone when it came to pushing prematurely a damaged and traumatized young woman into the meat grinder of the 24 hour news-cycle and the twitterverse.  Journalistic ethics didn’t matter much. A still struggling movement they’ve set back a good 10 years didn’t matter much.

Jackie certainly didn’t matter much.

 

The Inevitable Doubting of “Jackie” and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely

Our capacity for doubt when it comes to the accounts of victims of sexual violence- and apparently that of the world of journalism- never ceases to amaze me. Two weeks ago, a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing story emerged in Rolling Stone by reporter Sabrina Erdely. It was electrifying and remarkably popular. As of now, both the victim’s account and Erdely’s journalistic practice and ethics are being questioned.

I suppose I should not be surprised.

The primary objections to Erdely’s journalistic integrity rest on three primary foundations: 1) It’s only based on “the word of the alleged victim.” 2) Erdely made no attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators. 3) It’s just too horrible to be true.

First, as for Erdely basing her story solely on the apparently compelling, consistent and credible account of the victim, I’d remind the objectors of a legal maxim, often translated into a jury instruction in criminal cases and applicable in every U.S. jurisdiction I’m aware of: Testimony is evidence in a court of law, and if it is sufficiently compelling to the finders of fact (the jurors), then it may stand alone as the basis for a conviction. So jurors across the United States can base convictions beyond a reasonable doubt on the testimony of a single witness, but a reporter is reckless for accepting the account as the basis of a story?

Second, in terms of Erdely making no attempt to contact perpetrators, this is justified because they were not named. A fraternity was identified, but no individual perpetrators. According to Erdely, she contacted the fraternity and didn’t get very far, but what was she to do anyway? Erdely tells us that the victim, Jackie, for reasons explained, didn’t want the perpetrators she knew of to be confronted. She wanted to tell her story, not generate a mob. This is hardly indefensible; most victims of sexual violence do not report or tell anyone, let alone seek to create a public confrontation. Phi Kappa Psi is suffering scrutiny for sure. But not a single man is, whether affiliated or not. Thus, charges of “you didn’t get the other side of the story” make no sense, unless one or a group of men from the organization was willing to come forth and somehow prove a negative by either 1) accounting for the whereabouts of every member of the fraternity in the fall of 2012 or 2) describing the same encounter as consensual.

Third, in terms of the story being too ghastly, shocking, or indicative of coordinated evil on an otherwise august and civil campus to be true? I can only hope the doubters have never experienced something similar, within or without an environment like Rugby Road. An elucidating piece by Liz Seccuro, herself gang-raped at the same fraternity house 30 years ago, might allow some ugly but necessary light to penetrate the dark ignorance of some suspicious objectors. The LA Times’ Jonah Goldberg, for instance, can’t imagine how a bruised and bloodied woman could leave a darkened, loud college party without being noticed. I’d suggest he has either a limited imagination or limited experience with college parties. Politico’s Rich Lowry speculates that “the shock of [the story] led many people to recoil in horror upon the article’s release and ask, “How could this have happened at such a respectable school?” Actually, Mr. Lowry, there are legions of women (and some men) who know exactly how it could happen.

Both wonder how Jackie’s friends could have been so equivocal about reporting, and how the university could be so tepid about taking the matter to the police. Again, I can only say they have severely limited experience with the reality of sexual violence as it usually plays out in college life, and even less insight into how such violence is normally responded to. A fair debate continues about the role colleges should play in adjudicating sexual assault. But what must be understood is that the desires of victims, particularly given the gross limitations of the criminal justice system, drive the seemingly laissez-faire reactions of college administrators when rape comes to their attention. The idea is to empower, not dictate.

Doubting Jackie’s account is anyone’s prerogative. Doubts about Erdley’s reporting of it should stand on firmer ground.