Thursday, April 9, 2009

From the archives: Rape lie destroys lives of the accused and his family, but requiring the liar to apologize is "cruel and unusual" punishment

COMMENT: In a comment to a previous post where a mayor called for a false accuser to apologize to the town, one of our most astute readers, slwerner, wrote this: "I'll bet that her lawyer argues that her giving an apology would be too traumatic for her, and thus an unreasonable punishment.Maybe we'll even be treated to some spurious argument about how her having to apologize will cause future rape victims to decide not to report."

This reminded me of an old false rape case that caused a stir, so I dipped into the archives and pulled out this New York Times story from 1990, where a judge's sentence requiring the false accuser to apologize to the man she falsely accused caused debate.

Requiring an apology is a wonderful idea, of course, for the reasons explained by the judge: ". . . the rape charges were all over the papers, but when [the innocent man] was exonerated nobody hears about it. I told [the false accuser] the only way to get it out was to have her do it.''

Yet the ACLU fought it, among other things alleging that an apology constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Did you get that? This, after the woman's rape lie led to an innocent man losing his job and having his family harassed. His children were taunted at school; his one daughter was forced to quit school altogether; his wife hated even going shopping. People were buying guns because of this innocent man, and women feared him.

Such is the awful stigma of a false rape claim.

But it's "cruel and unusual punishment" to require the liar to apologize for the harm she caused.

We are living in Wonderland.

Thankfully the false accuser opted not to appeal the sentence. But before that, her sentence created a small national stir.

Here is the news account from the New York Times:

Sentence for Lie On Rape Charge Creates Debate

By WILLIAM ROBBINS, Special to The New York Times
Published: Sunday, July 8, 1990

When a Nebraska judge last month found Elizabeth Irene Richardson guilty of making a false accusation of rape, he handed down a sentence for which even he knew of no precedent: he ordered her to apologize in half-page advertisements in four newspapers and 10 spot announcements on two radio stations.

By Monday, Mrs. Richardson, a 24-year-old meat-packing worker who has three children, has to decide whether to accept the sentence or appeal it. Her decision could extend a long siege of anguish, both for her and for Gary L. Nitsch, the 43-year-old alfalfa-mill worker and father of two whom she falsely accused of raping her 22 months ago.

If she appeals, her lawyer and the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union say, the case may write a new chapter in American constitutional law.

Mrs. Richardson asserted that she had been raped in September 1988, and even though sheriff's deputies found no evidence of a rape, she testified against Mr. Nitsch at a hearing in February 1989. But the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Her lawyer, Tod McKeone, said that she was deeply disturbed at what she had done and that she finally admitted lying about the whole matter.

She Does Not Fight Charge

She was charged with perjury and pleaded no contest. On June 8, State District Judge John P. Murphy imposed the sentence: six months in jail, plus the newspaper and radio advertisements, which would cost her about $1,000.

While judges sometimes impose unusual conditions with the agreement of a defendant in exchange for lightening a sentence, Judge Murphy's requirment for the ads is in addition to the jail term.

Mr. McKeone and Bill Schatz, executive director of the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union, say they think the advertising requirement could violate three constitutional amendments: the 1st, which guarantees freedom of speech; the 8th, against cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th, with its guarantee of due process.

Mr. Schatz, who has offered research assistance if the case is appealed, said it was already on the public record and the results had been published. ''What purpose is served in telling her to extend that?'' he asked.

Judge Murphy said he was confident he had shown due regard for the constitutional questions.

But when asked whether the First Amendment permitted a judge to order any particular statement, he replied, ''I never thought of that.''

Judge Wants Lie Publicized

''You certainly couldn't force someone to say something they didn't believe,'' he added, ''but I have allowed her to put it into her own words.

''I told her the reason. Mr. Nitsch's brother complained the rape charges were all over the papers, but when he was exonerated nobody hears about it. I told her the only way to get it out was to have her do it.''

On instructions from his lawyers, Mr. Nitsch, who lost his job after he was accused, refuses to discuss the case. The lawyers say any comments could compromise a lawsuit he has filed against four sheriff's deputies he has accused of an improper search and arrest.

Family Is Embarrassed

Before he stopped talking to reporters, he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying: ''You can't change a wrong to a right. I lost a job. I had to get a lawyer. The kids at school were saying to my kids, 'Your dad's a rapist.' ''

He said his wife, Naomi, now hated to go shopping and his 18-year-old daughter, Tammy, had quit school.

Mr. Nitsch's 41-year-old brother, Clay, said Gary Nitsch was an unlikely subject for a rape charge. ''He was quiet and even now he doesn't drink or smoke,'' Clay Nitsch said. He also said that his brother had only seen Mrs. Richardson once, and that was when he responded to an ad she had placed for a house painting job.

Gary Nitsch was arrested while shopping and spent three days in jail before his brother was able to have him released on a $30,000 bond.

Clay Nitsch said his brother had been able to find only part-time work since he lost his job with the alfalfa mill. ''He didn't want to face the public,'' he said. ''He didn't want to go to business places in town. Then, after he was released, he heard stories of people in Overton buying guns and wives being scared of him.''

A Troubled Marriage

Mrs. Richardson, described as quiet and shy by her lawyer, turned down a request for an interview. Her lawyer, Mr. McKeone, said her action grew out of a troubled marriage and home life.

At the time of the rape accusation, Mrs. Richardson was married to a long-distance trucker, from whom she is now divorced. They had recently moved from Arkansas, she didn't know anyone in Overton, her husband had told her of extramarital affairs, and she was trying to get him to stay home, Mr. McKeone said. ''I don't think she premeditated anything. She was trying to get her husband's attention.''