Wednesday, April 10, 2013

University's 'Take Back the Night' mock rape trial highlights 'the difficulty in reaching a verdict' in he said/she said case

The University of Virginia's Sexual Misconduct Board presented a mock trial as part of a weeklong sexual assault advocacy program, Take Back the Night. Assoc. Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, the board’s chair, opened the event by describing a typical trial, which often lasts an entire day and involves multiple witnesses. The mock trial was a rape case in which the complainant, the accused and three witnesses testified. After each testimony, the board — comprised of three faculty members and two students — asked clarifying questions, most of which sought to determine whether the complainant had the capacity to “effectively consent.”

The Cavalier Daily, the school's student paper, reported: "After the trial, most felt there was not an obvious answer to the case — highlighting the difficulty in reaching a verdict using contradicting statements and a lack of detailed evidence." This outcome mirrors the University's experience: in the 22 cases the Sexual Misconduct Board has heard since 1998, 11 have been found not guilty, 10 were found guilty, and one admitted his guilt. See here: http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2013/04/mock-sexual-misconduct-trial

When we heard earlier this week that the University would be presenting a mock trial as part of its "Take Back the Night" program, we wrongly assumed it would tilt the evidence toward obvious guilt to highlight that the proverbial nice guy in the dorm next door can actually be a predator. Apparently, we were wrong; the school seems to have presented a true "he said, she said" scenario in all its glorious grays, where the truth is often as clear as a dense New England fog.

That it is difficult for a third party to figure out what happened in a sexual assault case should not be surprising. The parties themselves often can't agree. According to the National Institute of Justice: "Surveys of men and women on college campuses show a striking disparity in the proportion of women who report being assaulted and the proportion of men who report (even anonymously) being perpetrators. For example, in the Campus Sexual Assault survey, 19 percent of the women reported experiencing a completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college, while 2.5 percent of the men reported being perpetrators." Why this disparity? The National Institute of Justice raised as a possibility that "men and women may have different perceptions of the same incident."

Dr. David Lisak's research for his 2010 Violence Against Women study, a study frequently touted by feminist bloggers, found that, putting aside the gray claims -- that is, the majority of claims that can't be classified as either rape or non-rape -- and only looking at the claims that could be classified as false claims or that were referred for prosecution or disciplinary action, 14.2% were, in fact, false claims. The exact percentage of false or otherwise wrongful claims is unknowable, but the percentage of false or wrongful claims is certainly higher than 14.2%, possibly much higher. How do we know this? It is reasonably certain that a portion of the claims referred for prosecution or disciplinary action were false or wrongly brought, based on what we've learned from the Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations. In addition, Lisak's own study includes among the "gray" claims reports that did not result in a referral for prosecution or disciplinary action because the "victim" -- Lisak's terminology, tipping off an unfortunate bias -- "mislabeled" the incident as sexual assault when, in fact, it was not sexual assault. (We note that to a man or boy wrongly accused of rape, it matters little whether the wrongful accusation was a lie or a mistake. The concern of this blog is to give voice to the wrongly accused, not to insist that a lot of women lie about rape.) If, indeed, Lisak's study was intent on "proving" that false rape claims are rare, it actually underscored that a staggering percentage of men and boys are wrongly accused of sexual assault.

Every rape allegation needs to be taken seriously. The evidence needs to be examined objectively and thoroughly with the goal of getting at the truth--not simply to find evidence to bolster a desired outcome. Every accuser, and everyone accused, should be treated with dignity and respect.

We do a disservice to rape victims and to the community of the wrongly accused when we insist that every rape accusation should be assumed to be true or that sexual assault claims aren't rife with grays.