Monday, July 26, 2010

'Rape accuser's inconsistent statements are consistent with rape' . . . . Come again?

Don't take my word for what I'm about to tell you, read the article yourself. The Baltimore Sun continued its witch hunt of the Baltimore Police department's handling of rape cases yesterday, highlighting two ten-year-old rape allegations that were initially deemed "unfounded" but which later, the newspaper says, were proven to have been actual rapes. See here. This, presumably, is supposed to prove that the police force generally does not take rape allegations seriously.

In the two cases cited, both young women stopped cooperating with the police because the police supposedly focused on inconsistencies in their accounts and were, in some unspecified manner, confrontational. "They just degrade women," was the conclusory assertion of the mother of one of the young women, posited without specificity. The upshot of the article is that rape victims are not treated seriously. The article quotes a female prosecutor: "It is our job, our mission, as prosecutors to pursue justice for all crime victims," said State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy in an e-mail to The Sun. "For too many victims of sexual crimes, that justice comes years later with newly discovered evidence, most often the result of a cold case DNA hit."

While the failure to bring a rapist to justice can prove tragic, the article strains to blame the police department for the young women's decisions to drop the cases. The "evidence" cited to support blaming the police department is woefully insufficient. In "he said/she said" allegations of serious criminality, and especially in cases where there is often a motive to lie, the police need to search for inconsistencies and to challenge statements that don't add up. The failure to do so can be catastrophic for an innocent man or boy, but that fact never creeps into writer Erica Green's lengthy article.

Young women might decide to drop rape cases for any number of reasons. Often, they know that the case won't hold up. They also know that dropping claims is not socially desirable, and sometimes when they drop them for selfish reasons, they blame the police.

But the Sun's article borders dangerously close on saying that the police should just accept the conclusory assertion of a rape accuser without testing her assertion or challenging its inconsistencies. This, of course, would mean that all manner of accused would be forced to stand trial for rape on even far-fetched claims. In criminal cases, judges routinely instruct jurors that it is up to them to consider the inconsistencies or discrepancies in the testimony of witness. That is not only standard jury instruction fare, it's the stuff on which a lot of criminal cases are won and lost.

This article, on the other hand, finds a purported expert who suggests that police should not deem inconsistencies in the statements of purported rape victims as evidence of a lie. Why? Because "it's consistent that [the victim will] be inconsistent."

Read that last sentence again and let it sink in. Surprised? You shouldn't be. You see, in the rape field, evidence that the "victim" waited 40 years to report is consistent with rape. So is evidence that the "victim" reported immediately. Evidence that the "victim" was calm in relating her alleged ordeal is consistent with rape. So is evidence that the "victim" was excitable. Evidence that the woman insists the accused is her rapist is consistent with rape. So is evidence that the woman recanted.

Get it? Any conduct of the purported victim is evidence of rape. No matter what a rape accuser does, some expert, somewhere, will tell us it is consistent with the way rape victims behave. No human behavior should ever be cited as evidence of a lie so long as a rape accuser did it.

The Sun's article is troubling because it is so terribly lacking in nuance, in balance; it fails even to allude to the awful result of unquestioningly accepting the word of a rape accuser without challenging her inconsistencies, without testing her assertions to see if they hold up.

I wish like hell that the story's author Erica L.Green had checked this Web site, and had read the countless news accounts of recent false rape claims, before she had written her story. While that's surely too much to ask, you'd think, at the very least, she could have checked her own newspaper's archives. I wish like hell Ms. Green had uncovered the story of Bernard Webster, reported by the Sun a few years ago.

Mr. Webster was a young black man who spent spent two decades in prison for an alleged rape he didn't commit on the say so of a white English teacher. The gruelling story of Mr. Webster's ordeal relates the following: The victim"sobbed as she testified, describing how, after they first came face to face, her attacker spun her around and wrapped a house dress around her head so tightly that she could hardly breathe. She said he pressed something hard into her back and told her it was a gun. 'Do you see that person in court today?' asked Assistant State's Attorney Robert W. Lazzaro. 'Yes, I do,' she replied. And then she pointed at Webster. 'That's he.'"

Only it wasn't "he." The article recounts how Mr. Webster felt the antagonism in the Baltimore County courtroom toward him and his friends, all young blacks from the city. Mr. Webster knew the trial was over as soon as the purported victim stated sobbing on the stand when she wrongly identified him. Finally, and years too late, DNA proved Mr. Webster's innocence, and he was released from the hell that took away took decades of his life.

Mr. Webster's case would have served as a valuable cautionary tale about the care required in handling rape cases and the difficulties of achieving justice, and about how it is more important to insure that the innocent go free than to imprison the guilty. By any measure, Mr. Webster's ordeal should be far more unacceptable than the ordeals of the two rape victims. But somehow, that level of nuance doesn't seem to fit with the Sun's agenda to expose the police department's handling of rape cases.

The fact that the Baltimore Police department apparently leads the nation in labeling rape claims as "unfounded" should be investigated by unbiased persons. It is an anomaly that might suggest something is wrong. Underscore "might." But the Sun's effort to foment rape hysteria by focusing on two ten-year-old rapes, by citing conclusory allegations of the women who decided to drop those cases, and by suggesting that police should treat rape accuser's inconsistent accounts the same as consistent accounts -- in effect, just take the word of any purported rape victim that she was raped -- not only is absurd and childishly simplistic, it does a grave disservice to the presumptively innocent.

Bernard Webster's case should serve as a special reminder to Ms. Jessamy, quoted above, that her mission as a prosecutor is not "to pursue justice for all crime victims." Her mission is to pursue justice for everyone. And that includes flotsam like Bernard Webster, and the men and boys we report on every day in this Web site -- people the Baltimore Sun no longer seems to care about.