College Sexual Assault Charges Hard to Prove

By | December 8, 2014

An anonymous college student said in a media report that she had been gang-raped at a fraternity house. She told the reporter that she was drugged and beaten around the face, legs and vagina, yet a university dean ignored her plight.

“My life is ruined,” the student was quoted as saying.

This allegation came not at the University of Virginia, which confronted a similar account in Rolling Stone magazine of a 2012 gang rape at a fraternity, but at the University of Wisconsin three years earlier. The Wisconsin student’s version of events, chronicled by the student newspaper, was rejected by two courts. Police brought no charges.

Evidence of “whether a sexual assault actually occurred” was “razor thin,” a Wisconsin appeals court ruled in denying her lawsuit against the fraternity. The court called portions of her claim “problematic,” “inconclusive” and “circumstantial” at best.

U.S. Investigating How 55 Colleges Handle Sexual Assault Charges

The Wisconsin case illustrates the long path that the University of Virginia and its students may face after Jackie — Rolling Stone gave only her first name — told the magazine that she was gang-raped as a freshman. Proving a rape is far harder than alleging one; what can begin with apparent certainty may end in skepticism or ambiguity. Whether the difficulty of documenting the allegations and meting out punishment is due to false accusations, deficiencies in police training on sexual assaults, or a refusal to believe victims sparks fierce debate.

Rolling Stone magazine on Friday backtracked from its story.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” the magazine said in a statement. “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”

Story Scrutinized

Even before the magazine’s statement, media critics at outlets such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism Review questioned the Rolling Stone article because the reporter said in interviews that she didn’t contact the men accused of the rape. They also wrote that parts of the article were implausible or not independently verified. Rolling Stone and the reporter previously stood by their story, and activists on the UVA campus say Jackie told the same facts at a “Take Back the Night” program early this year.

Divided views on whether the courts would dispense justice in Jackie’s case have already surfaced. An attorney for a former member of the fraternity house where the rape allegedly occurred said that, if Rolling Stone’s account was accurate, the court “is the only place for this to be resolved.” Sexual-assault victims say that a grueling judicial process both on campus and in the courts not only wears them down but also deters other women from pressing a case.

Victim Blaming

Advocates fear a blame-the-victim bias may emerge. Liz Seccuro, author of a 2011 memoir about a gang rape she said she suffered 27 years earlier at UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi, the same fraternity featured in the Rolling Stone story, said rape victims are often met by disbelief. A man who in 2005 wrote her a letter apologizing for the attack later went to prison after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual assault.

“If you’re a vulnerable survivor and this sort of thing takes shape and has legs, you think, ‘Why in the world would you come forward?'” she said in a telephone interview. “After I fought a bit and realized that no one would help me, I just wanted to forge forward, get decent grades and graduate.”

Some men who believe the media or university authorities wrongly presumed them guilty of rape say the court system offers a chance for vindication.

After Joshua Strange’s girlfriend accused him of a sex offense in 2011, he was expelled from Auburn University in Alabama. His lawyer wasn’t allowed to represent him in the disciplinary proceedings, he said.

In court, a grand jury decided not to indict him for rape and prosecutors dropped an assault charge against him. Still, the university refused to reinstate him.

Legal Protections

“I was a 20- or 21-year-old college student trying to defend myself against one of the most heinous things you can be accused of,” said Strange, 24, who later graduated from a college near his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “Legal protections are there for a reason.”

While declining comment on Strange’s case, the university said in a statement that federal law requires it to “follow a process that differs from the judicial and law enforcement systems in many ways. Those requirements are very clear and come with severe penalties for noncompliance. We at Auburn take these requirements very seriously.”

In the Nov. 19 Rolling Stone article, Jackie said that seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house raped her and that the university did not respond adequately to her complaint. The article has set off acrimonious debate about fraternity culture and spurred the university to take steps to combat sexual misconduct. Police in Charlottesville are investigating. No one has been charged.

Johns Hopkins

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore last year, a student from another school told police she was gang raped at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. The allegation went nowhere. Prosecutors, citing insufficient evidence, didn’t bring charges. In May, the school suspended the chapter until June 2015 for alcohol and other violations unrelated to the rape claim. Dennis O’Shea, a university spokesman, declined to comment on whether a sexual assault had occurred.

The incident had repercussions for Johns Hopkins. Under the federal Clery Act, colleges must warn students of ongoing threats to safety. Because the school didn’t alert the campus to the gang rape claim, a student filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department for violations of that law and of Title IX, which prohibits gender bias in education. The university said it didn’t act because police said there was no threat.

‘Different Conclusion’

“If a similar incident occurred today, we would weigh the facts and circumstances differently and reach a different conclusion,” O’Shea said.

Johns Hopkins was far quicker to alert students after a 16- year-old told police she’d been raped by two people at a weekend party last month at another fraternity. Baltimore police arrested two men this week and charged them with rape. Neither they nor the victim were Johns Hopkins students. The school banned chapters from opening their parties to the public and stepped up safety efforts.

Fraternity gang rapes became a campus safety issue in the 1980s, with alleged instances at schools in Florida, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Because of a “boys will be boys attitude” among police and court personnel, students are rarely arrested or convicted in such cases, said Peggy Reeves Sanday, author of “Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus.” Her book explored a 1983 incident at the University of Pennsylvania that fraternity members said was consensual. No one was charged.

“You’re seeing an all-too-common event that occurs across the country but is rarely talked about,” Sanday said. “It’s a male bonding thing.”

Duke Drama

An alleged gang rape at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, drew headlines in 2006. A woman who worked as a stripper claimed that lacrosse players raped her at a team party. Amid local protests and unremitting media scrutiny, students were suspended, the university canceled the season, and the district attorney brought felony rape charges against three players.

Inconsistencies in the woman’s account soon emerged, as did claims of wrongdoing by the prosecutor. The state dropped the case the next year. With their names disseminated widely in the press, the students sued and reached settlements.

Though the episode at the University of Wisconsin drew less national attention, it dominated discussion on the school’s flagship Madison campus.

Wisconsin Story

On March 4, 2009, the student newspaper, the Badger Herald, reported what the headline called the “shocking” details of a gang rape at the Sigma Chi fraternity house. The article included a partial transcript of an interview with the woman and her friend. As in the Rolling Stone article, which used only Jackie’s first name, neither the alleged victim nor her friend, a female student, was identified.

The woman told the newspaper she was drinking at a party at the off-campus Sigma Chi house on Oct. 4, 2008 before a college football game. Afterward, as she returned from the stadium, she met two Sigma Chi brothers and a new member of her sorority. The group went to one bar, where she had a drink, and then a second bar, where she bought a round.

The last thing she remembered was saying, “Wow, this pineapple vodka is really good,” she told the newspaper. “I don’t remember one thing after that.”

The woman said she awoke that night without pants in the bed of a fraternity member. He lived in an apartment in the same building where the Sigma Chi fraternity was housed. He ordered her to leave because he was angry that she had passed out in his room. She returned home. In the morning, she discovered she was “gushing blood” and went to the hospital.

‘Worst Cases’

The nurse who treated her “said from how I was down there, that more than one guy raped me, like they took turns with me,” the alleged victim told the newspaper. “She said I was one of the worst cases she’s seen with how violent it was.” She telephoned her mother and said she may have been raped. She said she didn’t know by whom.

Besides cuts and bruises, the woman said she suffered a swollen lip, which was either punched or which she bit during the attack. Her friend told the newspaper how a fraternity member had on another occasion slipped what appeared to be a date-rape drug in the friend’s drink.

The woman said a dean “wasn’t very empathetic,” and she and her friend said they told administrators of another rape at the house. She said she was depressed and suffering emotionally.

UVA’s response came under similar scrutiny in Rolling Stone. According to the article, the woman identified as Jackie said the university refused to pursue the allegations for fear of tarnishing its reputation. The school has now banned fraternity activities through Jan. 9.

Swift Reaction

As at UVA after the Rolling Stone article, reaction to the 2009 Wisconsin story was swift. Someone tossed a brick through the Sigma Chi window. Police opened an investigation. The university held forums on sexual abuse and urged other victims to come forward. Some fraternity members volunteered to give DNA to prove their innocence.

The university immediately suspended the chapter. It later lifted the suspension and placed the fraternity on probation for unrelated alcohol violations, according to Kevin Helmkamp, the associate dean of students.

“This article provides a powerful reminder of the toll of sexual assault on a survivor,” the dean of students said in an e-mail to fraternity members on the night the story was published.

The campus was split. As some students rallied to the woman’s side, others challenged her account and assailed her in online posts.

Fraternity Sued

“There were people who came forward to say they were very proud of what the student had done,” said Kevin Bargnes, then a staffer on the Badger Herald who covered the aftermath as a reporter and editor and was a member of another fraternity. On the other hand, “there were a lot of people who gave the whole talking points about, ‘How could this girl go out and get this drunk and not expect this to happen?'” he said.

In July 2009, the student, identified only as Jane Doe, sued the Sigma Chi chapter and its Evanston, Illinois-based parent, claiming she was drugged and attacked by men she believed to be fraternity members. She offered medical records showing her injuries and cited instances in which Sigma Chi chapters elsewhere were sanctioned for wrongdoing such as sexual assault.

“The plaintiff was raped multiple times,” according to her complaint.

The woman’s lawyer, Robert Elliott, along with the fraternity’s lawyers, declined to comment, as did Michael Church, the executive director of the fraternity’s national organization.

Case Dismissed

A lower court dismissed the suit in March 2011. Then, almost three years to the day after the woman went public, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals rendered its judgment.

Medical tests found no evidence of sperm or that the woman had received a date-rape drug, the court said in a March 6, 2012, ruling.

The nurse who examined the woman denied in her pretrial deposition telling her that she’d been raped multiple times, the court said. The nurse also testified that the woman had said she could have been raped at the fraternity or one of the bars.

The woman suffered only “minor bruises and tenderness in various parts” of her body that would be consistent with either “rough treatment at the hands of an assailant or assailants” or “her loss of balance due to her acute intoxication,” the court said.

Sexual Encounter

A fraternity brother who went drinking with the woman that night said he offered to walk her home because she needed assistance. She declined and instead stayed at the building talking to Sigma Chi alumni who lived there, the court said. There were no previous reports of sexual assault in the building.

The court’s description of the case added a detail not included in the newspaper account. After the football game, the woman returned to the building with the fraternity house and had a consensual sexual encounter with a student who lived there before heading to the two bars.

“There is insufficient evidence to establish a sexual assault,” the appeals court said.

Police didn’t bring charges in the case.

Strange, the ex-Auburn student, said public opinion in his case initially favored the accuser because his lawyer advised him against speaking out for fear of compromising his legal defense.

“People are so quick to rush to judgment when they only have half the story,” Strange said. “Wait before you judge.”

–With assistance from John Lauerman and John Hechinger in Boston.

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