May 4, 2007

Skepticism in the Face of Rape

by PG

Things I know after the sexual assault charges against the Duke lacrosse players have been dropped:

1) I am glad that I did not try to write about such a complicated case while it was going on.

2) Suspending students who have been charged with a violent felony is appropriate, though their tuition should be refunded if they don't get credit for the semester in which their suspension occurs.

3) Why I don't feel bad about castigating the accuser, and am frustrated by those who insist she has the true story: We need to maintain the still-tenuous default that someone who brings a complaint of sexual assault to law enforcement will be believed at least as much as someone who brings a complaint of non-sexual assault. The assumption people now are making about the Duke case, that this was a false complaint and no sexual assault occurred, really does hurt the maintenance of that default. The default is what gives many rape survivors the strength to go through a grueling criminal justice process; at least at the beginning, they could say to a cop, "He raped me," and be believed, even if ultimately they're brought to tears at cross-examination and they watch the rapist walk free after a not guilty verdict.

While I disapprove of the DA's handling of the case, I cannot disapprove of a norm in which survivors walk into police stations and are treated sympathetically rather than skeptically. Certainly the police and state's attorney should question the complainant carefully, as they would in any other case: build a timeline, get corroborating details, etc. But when one of my friends was mugged, even though the police never found the criminal and from the beginning were doubtful that they ever would, they didn't treat her like she either was lying about the mugging itself, or was incapable of accurately describing her assailant. They believed her about the mugging, and they respected her description of how it happened.

Had they arrested someone for the crime, he still would have been innocent until proven guilty, and I still would want him to have the full protections we afford defendants. Because maybe they picked up the wrong guy, and maybe when Jess identified him he really just looked an awful lot like a guy she's seen only briefly in poor light, so she should get grilled thoroughly about the accuracy of her identification both by law enforcement and by defense counsel when the case goes to trial. But she should be believed when she comes to the police about having been mugged, and other people should be believed when they come to the police about having been raped.

Particularly with the current backlash against Durham law enforcement, police departments now are going to feel like they should be more cautious, more skeptical, when faced with a complaint of sexual assault. If the woman who accused the Duke students did so with conscious falsity, she deserves condemnation despite her otherwise sympathetic background as a poor, single mother of three young children, with a history of mental illness.

4) Why I do feel bad about castigating the accuser: Early last week, when I was composing the post about AutoAdmit, a classmate on the computer next to mine read to me the story of a man who had just been set free after going on trial for the kidnapping and sexual assault of his girlfriend's two teenage daughters. She found it incredible that a jury could vote to acquit after a few hours of deliberation in such a case.

Authorities had charged that Hinson snatched the 17-year-old girls from their bedroom last year and dragged them one at a time to the underground room hidden beneath a tool shed, where he raped and bound them with duct tape. Prosecutors said Hinson expected the girls to die because the room had no air supply.
However, Hinson testified during the six-day trial that the girls had consensual sex with him.
I looked over at what she was reading and pointed out the following paragraphs:
Defense attorney Rick Hoefer spent much of his nearly two-hour closing argument Sunday picking apart what he called inconsistencies in the teens' testimony, including how long it took them to call 911 after their alleged escape and whether they saw Hinson with a gun.
Prosecutors said any discrepancies in their stories might have been a result of the trauma the teens went through.
She can't get her story straight, was the rallying cry of the Duke students' early supporters. The inconsistencies of the accuser were seized upon to show that she must be lying, not merely confused or traumatized.

Certainly Hinson's story is less plausible than the Duke players' outright denial that any sex occurred. Hinson's claim requires us to believe that two 17-year-old girls were so desperate for pot* that they consented to sex with a 48-year-old man in a 41/2 feet high room under a tool shed. The Duke players' claim requires us to believe only that a young sex worker, angry about racist, verbally abusive young men who hadn't paid her the money she needed, would decide to revenge herself by accusing them of sexual assault. But both cases may include the paradox of having a rape allegation being found insufficient because it was muddled by the symptoms of trauma -- confusion, memory problems, difficulty with clear thinking.

* Frankly the Hinson jury sounds kind of dumb. In response to one of the girls testifying that she bought drugs last summer from someone a defense witness said sold crack, the foreman said, "We all know people who smoke crack will do just about anything to smoke crack again." OK, but Hinson didn't have crack, he had pot. Pot =/= crack. I think the most amazing part of the jury deliberation is that they took a fact that they shouldn't have been allowed to know that normally would make the defendant look very bad, and turned it into a strike against the prosecution's witnesses:

Mention of anything connected with Hinson's previous rape conviction was barred from testimony to prevent the jury being swayed against Hinson. But jurors learned of it from an oversight in admitting a 911 logbook that says: "(One girl) STATES WAS RAPED BY MOTHER'S BOYFRIEND AT (address) HE IS FORMER SEXOFFEDER(sic) KENNETH HENSON(sic)." Rather than helping the prosecution, it raised doubts in the mind of jury foreman Thomas Williams, a former director of a 911 system, because he said rape victims don't usually mention the history of their attacker in their first call to police.

May 4, 2007 12:47 AM | TrackBack

This article ignores a lot of the facts in the Duke case. Like for instance that the players had electronically confirmed alibi's that proved they weren't near the false accuser at any of the various times that she alledged the rape occurred. Or that numerous eyewitnesses contradicted the false accursers allegations, but not one eyewitness confirmed them. Or that false accuser still claimed obviously false account of the events when confronted with electronic evidence that proved otherwise. Or that the false accuser had reason to tell the false story to keep from going to jail that night for public intoxication.

Posted by: Frisco at May 4, 2007 12:36 PM

This is goofy. The Duke players said that no sex ocurred PRIOR to the DNA tests. The only way they could know that was that if the story was untrue. The Defendant in the other case said the sex was voluntary, which seems incredible. One the DNA tests came back negative, any thinking person should have known this was a frame up.

Posted by: jj at May 4, 2007 4:15 PM

Frisco and jj,

So we know that the Duke players who were DNA tested and not in Durham that night couldn't have raped the accuser. That doesn't mean she wasn't raped by someone else that night, or even that someone sexually assaulted her without penile penetration. Absolutely, there is not enough evidence with which to prosecute the people she accused, nor even enough to suspect them as rapists. I'm just pointing out that survivors of sexual assault get confused, and to the extent that the accuser genuinely may have suffered sexual assault in some form, by somebody, I don't want to be a person castigating her.

Posted by: PG at May 5, 2007 12:07 AM
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