Last Thursday, the
police department of Paradise Valley, Ariz., released the name of Kansas
State football star Ell Roberson to the media as an accused rapist.
No charge had been filed: no arrest made, then or now. Roberson denied the
accusation leveled against him mere hours before, early Thursday morning.
The Paradise Valley police simply "outed" an accused rapist before completing
an investigation. The process of how police departments deal with sexual
assault accusations should be overhauled.
The police seemed to knowingly inflict damage on Roberson with little evidence
to do so. Lt. Ron Warner reportedly told journalists that there was "no supporting
evidence, no witnesses, no physical injuries" surrounding the alleged rape.
"We have two opposing descriptions of what happened," he concluded. Paradise
Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen subsequently explained, "the investigation
is not done." Medical tests on the accuser had not returned when Roberson's
name hit TV, nor were they expected until early the next week.
Why was Roberson thrown to the media?
Two factors probably played a large role: Careers are made by prosecuting
celebrities; and, the legal system has grown callous toward those accused
of sexual abuse.
With regard to career-making, the police's timing was interesting. Roberson
was scheduled to play the next day (Friday) in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio
State. Speculation on whether his coach would pull the star quarterback flooded
major news channels. When Roberson played after being cleared by a university
investigation, nationwide debate on the decision ensued. Sportscasters wondered
about how the accusation may have affected the game: Ohio State won. Waiting
for such niceties as medical results might have made police and county attorneys
miss out on publicity.
With regard to callousness, the Paradise Valley police were stepping in the footsteps of recent, similar prosecutions.
Colorado District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who is prosecuting Kobe Bryant
on rape charges, recently apologized for T-shirts about Kobe that originated
in his office. One T-shirt read: "I'm not a rapist; I'm just a cheater."
Hurlbert admitted that he and co-prosecutor Greg Crittenden each received
a shirt but claimed not to know the source.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Thomas W. Sneddon joked with reporters
during a Nov. 19 press conference to announce that an arrest warrant had
been issued for Michael Jackson for child abuse. A sample: "I hope that you
all [journalists] stay long and spend lots of money because we need your
sales tax to support our offices." Why was he laughing? Because child abuse
is funny or because he thinks the charges against Jackson are a joke?
The publicity surrounding celebrity cases is extreme but elements of it are
also present in low-profile prosecutions. For example, whenever an official
announces a "get tough" campaign on sexual assault, success is measured by
how many assailants are prosecuted or imprisoned. This provides incentive
to publicize prosecutions.
Or, rather, to publicize one side of those cases. The accuser's identity is protected.
Why? The stigma our society attaches to those accused of rape is at least
as strong as that attached to rape victims. And, at the point of accusation,
neither is presumed to be innocent or guilty.
The answer will come back: because women must be encouraged to report rape
without feeling intimidated. But it is equally valid to argue that accused
men must be encouraged to defend themselves without feeling that the police
and prosecutors will use the media against them. If the goal is to protect
the innocent, the obvious solution is to name neither party until after a
trial verdict. But police and prosecutors do not advocate this remedy.
And for a good reason. Justice requires transparency, not secrecy. Many safeguards
for justice aim at openness: public access to courtrooms and court records,
the right to face an accuser, the right to cross examine witnesses, trial
by jury, etc. There may be valid reasons to seal a specific case but a whole
category of crime, such as rape, should never be pushed into judicial shadow.
A key reason for transparency is to discourage false accusations. This is
also why police conduct investigations and why courts presume a defendant
to be innocent.
How common are false allegations of sexual assault? No one knows. And the
more anonymous accusations become, the less likely it is that solid statistics
will emerge. One of the best studies remains that of the now-retired Purdue
University sociologist Eugene J. Kanin. Kanin examined reports of forcible
rape lodged with the police force of a small metropolitan town from 1978
to 1987. There were 109 accusations; 45, or 41 percent, were discarded as
Forty-one percent seems remarkably high but it does indicate the urgent need
to take false accusations seriously. The law should apply its own standard
of "presumption of innocence" by naming an accuser as well as the accused,
or naming neither. It should prosecute the filing of false reports as vigorously
as it does valid ones.
As it stands, those who prosecute rape allegations are losing credibility.
A legal system that mongers gossip to the media before concluding investigations,
that prints humorous T-shirts about defendants and uses press conferences
for comic relief does not engender trust in justice. It is a threat to justice
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Her
new book is Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century.
Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.