Monday, September 7, 2009

Anatomy of a rape case where a man was sent to prison over a disputed claim of consensual sex

So, young men, read this as a cautionary tale: some district attorneys are willing to roll the dice with your lives just to get a conviction, even when the issue of consent is a close one, and even when the evidence isn't clear, so long as he has a strong female witness willing to point the finger of guilt at you.

In a chilling verdict for any man who might engage in casual sex with an acquaintance, the Ramsey County District Court of Minnesota convicted Nathan Obeta for allegedly raping a 22-year-old woman in a he said-she said rape case. Mr. Obeta claims the sex was consensual. He has been in prison since May of 2008 and his anticipated release date is April 25, 2016. To put that in perspective, if President Obama is reelected to a second term, Mr. Obama will be in the final months of his presidency when Mr. Obeta finally emerges from prison under supervised release -- over a disputed sex act of a short duration. On August 25 of this year, a panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously reversed and remanded for a new trial.

On April 25, 2007, the accuser and a female friend partied at the friend's home and, as young women around the world are wont to do, they invited two men over, Mr. Obeta, then 28, and his male friend. Early the next morning, the accuser left with the two men. Mr. Obeta's friend ran a stop sign and, for reasons not explained, the car was impounded. Therefter, the accuser, Mr. Obeta, his friend, and the car's owner sought to lawfully retrieve the car, which had been impounded, and the accuser called her former boyfriend, whom whe described as "abusive" and "jealous," for help. The former boyfriend joined the group, but became jealous when the accuser teased the other men by flashing them at least once. The accuser seemed to be enjoying herself. When the group had retreived the impounded car, the accuser decided to go with Mr. Obeta, his friend, and the car's owner instead of her former boyfriend. Testimony at trial was disputed as to whether the accuser asked to go home, and the men testified that the accuser was having a good time -- they said she was dancing, and she flashed them again.

Eventually, Mr. Obeta dropped everyone else off, and he pulled into a parking lot where he and the accuser had sex. She did not fight or scream, but she claims she told him to stop. He claims it was consensual. The two then argued about whether Mr. Obeta would drive her home, and Mr. Obeta testified that she threatened to tell the police that he had raped her if he did not give her a ride home. Mr. Obeta claimed the accuser laughed and walked away while he drove off. The accuser could not find a ride home, so she flagged down a police car and reported that she'd been raped. According to the decision of the Court of Appeals: "The officer testified that [the accuser] 'was very upset' and 'crying,' and that her 'shoulders were slumped forward.' [The accuser] was transported to the hospital, where she was examined by a sexual assault nurse. The nurse testified that [the accuser] was 'very upset, very quiet, shaking at times.' The nurse found several scratches on [the accuser's] back and arms, but she did not discover any injuries to [her] vaginal area."

Mr. Obeta was convicted, and incarcerated. Some 15 months after he was incarcerated, the state's Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Mr. Obeta was deprived of a fair trial. The court characterized the trial as a "close credibility contest" involving "a great deal of conflicting testimony" and the evidence of Mr. Obeta's guilt "was not overwhelming."

Now, for those penis-bearing readers, stop right there and wipe the cold sweat from your brow. Ask yourself how that makes you feel -- that a man can be sent to prison for many years on a close "he said-she said" dispute involving a great deal of conflicting evidence.

At trial, the court allowed the nurse to testify about common injuries to and characteristics of sexual assault victims, and to imply that because the accuser fit those characteristics she was such a victim. ". . . the nurse and the detective were allowed to testify that, based on their experience, most women who are assaulted 'have significant fear and don't fight back,' that 'they just lay there and wait for it to be over with for fear of being injured more,' and that 'there's a delay' in reporting in 'the majority' of sexual assault cases . . . ." On appeal, the court said the trial court erred: "Because matters of witness credibility are generally within the competence and common experience of most jurors, the use of an expert's opinion to bolster the credibility of a witness is discouraged. . . . . This is particularly true in cases involving sexual assault of an adult victim when the issue is consent; the state may not present testimony on typical reactions or experiences of rape victims. . . . . '[S]uch testimony is of no help to the jury' because it is irrelevant whether the alleged victim 'react[s] in a typical manner to the incident,' and she 'need not display the typical post-rape symptoms . . . to convince the jury that her view of the facts is the truth.' Id. at 229."

The trial court also erred in refusing to allow evidence of the accuser's prior report of an assault against her former boyfriend, which the appeals court said "is potentially . . . relevant because of [Mr. Obeta's] claim that [the accuser] threatened to report him for rape if he refused to drive her home, which paralleled her apparent false claim of assault against [her former boyfriend]." (Emphasis added.)

That was not admissible at trial? Wow!

The trial court also erred in admitting into evidence the accuser's audiotape statement to the nurse, which was, in important respects, inconsistent with her trial testimony, including the assertion that Mr. Obeta put his hand over her mouth during the assault to prevent her from screaming. At trial, the accuser testified that she did not resist.

The cumulative effect of all this denied Mr. Obeta a fair trial, so he'll need to go through the entire thing all over again. He will keep reliving those fateful few moments when he and the accuser had sex. I am certain Mr. Obeta would do it differently if he could do it over. In light of the evidence, it is astounding that this matter was sent to trial. It would be even more astounding that a conviction was obtained if it weren't for the trial court's rulings that deprived Mr. Obeta of a fair trial.

So, young men, read this as a cautionary tale: some district attorneys are willing to roll the dice with your lives just to get a conviction, even when the issue of consent is a close one, and even when the evidence isn't clear, so long as he has a strong female witness willing to point the finger of guilt at you.

Frightening, don't you think?

Find the case at: 2009 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 966 -- Link: