Thursday, March 21, 2013

In 'he said/she said' sexual assault claim, newspaper writer decries 'victim blaming' that assumes the accuser is lying -- but has no hesitation in making the accused look guilty

Several months ago, Ryan Romo, a high school baseball standout, was arrested on his front lawn after a classmate accused him of sexual assault in a "he said/she said" claim. Subsequently, a grand jury failed to find  probable cause to indict Ryan, and he was cleared of the charges. As a result of the charges, Ryan says he lost his college baseball opportunities and is no longer a potential Major League Baseball prospect.

Now Ryan is back in the news. He and his parents are suing the still-unnamed girl and her parents and step-father for defamation. We discuss the suit below. Of course, we have no first-hand knowledge about whether the rape claim was a lie, but if the assertions in the suit are factual, they are disturbing in the extreme. Before we discuss the suit, we highlight one of the most odious aspects of the accusation against Ryan Romo.

A writer for the Dallas News named Jacquielynn Floyd took offense at the reaction of some Dallas News readers who, she said, engaged in "victim blaming." In the course of denouncing them, the writer did something even more unjust: she made Ryan Romo look guilty (don't take my word for it -- her column is reprinted at the end of this post). That's unpardonable for a writer at a major newspaper.

First, Floyd recounted the "facts" as shown by the affidavit of arrest warrant, which related only the girl's story, not Ryan's. Here is what the Dallas New writer wrote -- read this carefully:

"The basic facts are known. Romo, who will turn 19 on Tuesday, ran into the girl at a concert Saturday night. After the show, the pair took a cab back to his Chevy Tahoe. They drove to his home and parked outside, got in the back seat and began kissing. According to the affidavit, when Romo began physically pressing for sex, the girl told him 'no' and 'stop' several times. She later told her mother, 'I said no but he didn’t care,' again according to the affidavit. A hospital rape exam, and a second examination by the girl’s own doctor, both found physical trauma consistent with forcible assault."

Floyd wrung her hands: "I was genuinely poleaxed with disbelief at some of the crazy, cruel scenarios some people are spinning to explain this particular set of facts."

Remember, Floyd prefaced the above rendition of purported events by asserting "the basic facts are known." But note how she slips in assertions from the arrest warrant affidavit without bothering to relate that "this particular set of facts" did not tell Ryan's side of the story. Didn't her readers deserve to know that the accused's side of the story was not included in "the basic facts" that she claimed were "known"? Or would that simple assertion have undermined the point she was trying to make? (When Floyd sees this -- and she will -- I would ask her if the police even bothered to ask Ryan a single question before they came for him on his front lawn.)

The Romos’ lawsuit does tell Ryan's side of the story -- and it is markedly different than "the basic facts" related by the Dallas News writer: Ryan asked the girl point blank if she wanted to have sex in the backseat of his car. She reportedly answered “yes” and even gave Ryan “instructions” on how to proceed. The girl told Ryan to “put it in all the way” and then to “wait” because she was in pain, and that Ryan only resumed when she told him, “Okay, I’m good.” After the teens had sex, Ryan allegedly declined the girl’s offer to sleep over and drove her home.

Second, let's look at the "victim blaming" that Floyd found so terribly offensive. She was upset that some readers dared to question the "particular set of facts" related in the warrant affidavit. "Their automatic disbelief is so sad, so utterly lacking in compassion, that they sound like savage animals tearing at the flesh of a wounded member of their own pack."

Among the comments Floyd found so repugnant: "Several writers characterized the case as 'he said/she said,' as if conflicting stories make it impossible to get at the truth." And: "One woman wrote The Dallas Morning News that the accused attacker 'should not be put in the paper with his mugshot like a rapist who breaks into homes and preys on women.'”

How crazy, savage, and cruel these people are!

Then, Floyd's coup de grĂ¢ce: Although she bemoans what she terms "victim blaming," she, herself, is guilty of something even worse. This is a quote from her piece: "What’s unfortunate about this case — wait, scratch that. What’s revolting, what’s sickening about this case, is the outpouring of comments on public forums vilifying the victim, an unidentified teenage girl." (Emphasis added.) She also complained about a reader "who shares a little forensic gynecological expertise by explaining the victim’s physical trauma as being 'most likely from the intense sex that they just had in a car.'” (Emphasis added.)

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. In a piece where a Dallas News writer bemoans that some readers have rushed to judgment and assumed the innocence of the accused, she, herself, declared the accuser a "victim."

Words matter. In this context, calling the unnamed girl a "victim" can only mean that Ryan Romo must be guilty. This would have been unjust at any time prior to an adjudication of guilt, but here, Ryan hadn't even been charged with a crime, much less convicted. The grand jury subsequently couldn't find even probable cause to charge him.

As a professional writer for one of America's major dailies, shouldn't Floyd be held to a higher standard than those casual readers she compares to "savage animals"? Or is it okay to rush to judgment and assume guilt but not innocence in rape cases? Branding the accuser a "victim" does a grave disservice to (1) the presumptively innocent young man who, unlike the accuser, is named in the Dallas News, and (2) Dallas News readers, who are entitled to accurate reporting but receive something less than that when she transforms an accuser into a "victim."  People reading the newspaper assume the people who write for the Daily News are writing responsibly, and the writer shows elsewhere in her piece that she is capable of being responsible -- sometimes she does refer to the "alleged" victim and the "alleged" perpetrator. But slipping in "victim" without the "alleged" is unpardonable.

Cathy Young recently talked about a new kind of "sexism" where "any man or boy accused of a sex crime is presumed guilty." We see symptoms of that in too many newspaper accounts. "Victim blaming" is wrong. But even worse is assuming that a young man is guilty of a heinous sex crime on the basis of nothing more than an accusation, without even bothering to consider his side of the story.

As noted above, Ryan and his parents have filed a defamation lawsuit against the 16-year-old girl who accused him of rape, and her parents and stepfather. Again, we are not in a position to opine if the suit states a valid claim for relief. If the claim was a lie, by any measure, the suit is justified. The Romos' attorney Mark Senter says the girl “was used as a pawn to further her parents’ ‘get rich quick’ scheme.” The Romos claim the defendants coerced their daughter into making false statements to the police for their own financial gain. Before the case went before the grand jury, and after Ryan had submitted to a four-hour polygraph test, the Romos claim that the defendants approached the Romos and offered to drop the criminal charges in exchange for money and other demands. The Romos declined, preferring instead to see their son’s name cleared.  The lawsuit catalogs reports of several other alleged sexual encounters between the girl and other Highland Park students, as well as her parents’ reported knowledge and acceptance of such activities.

We have no idea if any of this true. If it is, it is disturbing in the extreme.  The leading contract law treatise of the past century states: ". . . any bargain for the purpose of stifling a criminal prosecution . . . is always contrary to public policy and unenforceable." (Corbin on Contracts, Section 83.1.) How terribly odious to the fair administration of justice that the parents of a teen girl might have tried to trade the prosecution of a fabricated sex offense like commodities in the marketplace. We will be watching this case closely.

Here is the story on the lawsuit. And below is the offensive Dallas News column.

Victim-blaming hits new low in Highland Park rape case
Jacquielynn Floyd
jfloyd@dallasnews.com
Published: 01 November 2012 11:21 PM

Let us imagine that a person — could be anybody, but for our purposes, let’s say it’s a wealthy, popular high school athlete from a well-connected family — is accused of armed robbery.

A store clerk identifies him as the robber. The police find the clerk’s story, which is supported by physical evidence, to be credible enough that a warrant is issued and the alleged perpetrator is arrested and charged.

Community-wise, it’s a big story. Everybody’s talking about it.

Tell me, is this your first reaction: The clerk probably gave him the money voluntarily, then yelled “robbery” to cover up the cash shortage. Clerks lie about robbery all the time.

Or this: The store is just asking for it by leaving that cash register full of money right there in plain sight. You can’t expect robbers to resist that kind of loot! What was the store doing open at that time of night, anyway?

Would you wring your hands and lament: Poor kid, there’s no way to tell what really happened. Now his life is ruined.

I assume you’re ahead of me here, and that you know I’m fixing to work around to the case involving Highland Park High School baseball player Ryan Romo, who is charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl in his car last weekend.

This case began its lumbering journey through the justice system with everybody doing their jobs. A complaint was made; two separate physical examinations supported the allegation, police say; they opened an investigation; a judge acknowledged there was probable cause for an arrest.

Some rape arrests are reported in the news; some aren’t. Given the wealth and prominence of the alleged perpetrator’s family, this particular case was publicized based on information outlined in the warrant affidavit.

It’s not a conviction. It’s an accusation that, at this point, detectives say is supported by evidence and that they are taking seriously. That’s how the system works.

What’s unfortunate about this case — wait, scratch that. What’s revolting, what’s sickening about this case, is the outpouring of comments on public forums vilifying the victim, an unidentified teenage girl.

I can’t for the life of me understand the cruelty of people who are busy constructing speculative, unsupported tales about how this girl is either lying about being raped, or, if she actually was raped, is nonetheless somehow at fault.

“Let’s not pretend women/girls don’t lie about rape,” wrote one commenter/self-appointed legal expert.

The basic facts are known. Romo, who will turn 19 on Tuesday, ran into the girl at a concert Saturday night.

After the show, the pair took a cab back to his Chevy Tahoe.

They drove to his home and parked outside, got in the back seat and began kissing.

According to the affidavit, when Romo began physically pressing for sex, the girl told him “no” and “stop” several times. She later told her mother, “I said no but he didn’t care,” again according to the affidavit.

A hospital rape exam, and a second examination by the girl’s own doctor, both found physical trauma consistent with forcible assault.

Again, it’s not a conviction. But I was genuinely poleaxed with disbelief at some of the crazy, cruel scenarios some people are spinning to explain this particular set of facts.

“Sounds like she told a story when she was late getting home and this has skyrocketed out of control,” one commenter said. And another: “No way this girl testifies. If she climbed in the back seat consensually, his attorneys will destroy her.”

Several writers characterized the case as “he said/she said,” as if conflicting stories make it impossible to get at the truth.

One commenter theorized that even if sexual assault occurred, the victim is partially responsible: “It seems like both sides didn’t make the best choices.”

Several posters, discounting the professional investigative process entirely, insisted that “there’s no way to know” what happened, and that the alleged victim’s statement “is all they have.” Maybe they should throw her into the lake to see whether she floats.

One commenter constructed an entire defense theory.

“She probably consented to having sex [but] claimed it was ‘forced upon her’ due to the fear of consequences by her parents.”

The writer also shares a little forensic gynecological expertise by explaining the victim’s physical trauma as being “most likely from the intense sex that they just had in a car.”

It’s hard to believe that people are saying such things about a teenage girl who might be a rape victim. Their automatic disbelief is so sad, so utterly lacking in compassion, that they sound like savage animals tearing at the flesh of a wounded member of their own pack.

One woman wrote The Dallas Morning News that the accused attacker “should not be put in the paper with his mugshot like a rapist who breaks into homes and preys on women.” What’s missing in the affidavit but the burglary?

Some comments, of course, expressed concern for the alleged victim, or at least suggested that idle speculation should be curbed.

But there was enough outright victim-blaming to scare the daylights out of anybody seeking justice, or even simple decent compassion, after a sexual assault.

I don’t wonder why victims “lie.” I wonder how they ever summon the courage to tell the truth.

http://www.dallasnews.com/news/columnists/jacquielynn-floyd/20121101-victim-blaming-hits-new-low-in-highland-park-rape-case.ece