Friday, November 19, 2010

The unholy alliance of a false accuser, a local TV station, and the local police that almost destroyed two NFL players

Rape is a criminal violation of a human being's dignity.  A false rape claim is also a criminal violation of a human being's dignity.  The difference is that the latter is a violation that is tolerated, indeed, tacitly encouraged, as the price of waging war on the former.  The horrific story below underscores that despite the boastful mansions, the haute couture and the lush rides of the rich and the famous, society is especially tolerant of false rape claims lodged against male celebrities, and male athletes seem to have a bulls-eye on their backs when it comes to fabricated rape claims.

We dip into the archives to recall one of the most infamous false rape claims in recent American history.  Many of our readers may not remember it, and many were not attuned to the false rape tragedy when this occurred.  On September 16, 1997, Nina Shahravan, 24, a makeup artist and erstwhile stripper, was sentenced to just 90 days in jail and was ordered to pay just $1,500 as a fine after pleading guilty to misdemeanor perjury for falsely accusing two Dallas Cowboys stars, Erik Williams, an All-Pro offensive lineman, and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, of participating in a vile, depraved sexual assault against her. Both men had prior brushes with the law; neither had the best of reputations, and that made the false charges against them all the easier to make.

No, there wasn't really an "alliance" as suggested in the provocative title of this post -- except insofar as each of the three parties referenced acted in accordance with their self-interests to help produce the result we describe below. The false accuser bears the majority of the blame, of course, but the media and the police can't hide behind her this time because they added  proverbial fuel to the fire.

The case had all the elements of a thousand others we've seen before and since: a news media that unquestioningly accepted the word of a rape accuser, and ran with the story, despite the red flags as to her reliability; law enforcement officials who were quick to publicly announce that they were investigating the claim based solely on the woman's allegation and under apparent pressure from the local television station; a slap on the wrist for the false accuser; law enforcement officials expressing concerns about the effect of the rape liar's recantation on hypothetical rape victims as opposed to victims of the actual crime she committed; and the general feeling that the case was an aberration, with nothing to teach us.

The case had plenty to teach us, but, sadly, we haven't learned a thing from it.

The False Claim

On the night of December 29, 1996, Nina Shahravan called a Dallas TV reporter at the local NBC affiliate who had worked with her in the past. She told him she had been raped.  Shahravan went to the police the next day. In an affidavit, she claimed that Michael Irvin pointed both a video camera and a semi-automatic pistol at her while Erik Williams and another unnamed male raped her on a pool table. Irvin supposedly directed Shahravan's "acting" while she was being brutalized and purportedly told her: "Look like you're having fun." Shahravan also told cops the men had been snorting cocaine.

The next day, the TV reporter Shahravan had first called named Williams in a special on-air report. An hour later, the Dallas police called a press conference that was broadcast live across north Texas on television and radio. 

The Police Treat the Lie As If It Were True

This is how the New York Times chillingly described the police news conference: ". . . as footage of the original news conference showed a top-ranking police lieutenant describing Shahravan's story, a viewer might well have thought that it was the official police description of what happened, not necessarily an unidentified woman's unverified account."

Mr. Williams' attorney said that the Dallas police "had him convicted before it fully investigated the accusations." Even the accuser's attorney later said this:  "It started with the city of Dallas ... calling a press conference to publicize an accusation of rape before they had even started their investigation, and it went downhill from there."

For their part, Dallas police would later say that the television news reporter from the local NBC affiliate had forced them to hold a news conference and reveal the names of the suspects.

The Police Plow Ahead With Their Investigation

Irvin and Williams strongly denied the charges. "My parents raised me right," explained Williams. "They never raised a rapist. To be accused of something so bad...." He couldn't even finish the thought.

Despite the "he said/she said" nature of the case, detectives plowed ahead with their investigation.  They defended their probe by saying their findings were consistent with the rape account Shahravan had given. A police medical examination said her bruises were "consistent with a sexual assault."  They failed to add that it was also true that the bruises were consistent with something other than sexual assault.

Shahravan's estranged husband said publicly during the investigation that he doubted the story because she had also falsely accused him and a previous fiancé of sexual assault.

As the presumptive victim, Shahravan was placed in police protective custody.  The news media withheld her name from publication because, according to one publication, "she was believed to be the victim of a sexual assault."

In fact, as it later turned out, and despite the certainty exuded by Dallas police at the initial press conference, investigators began questioning her credibility early on in their investigation, after some Dallas police remembered Shahravan as a topless dancer who once fancied herself a drug informant for cops but had no solid tips. As the investigation continued, her story seemed less credible, police said. 

Unbalanced Media Coverage

Despite the shakiness of the case, the accuser's identity was safe and secure due to a journalistic policy that the iconic Sidney Zion, writing in the New York Daily News, had the balls to say "stinks."

Nevertheless, members of the news media, Williams said, went "out of their way to protect her because . . . she’s the victim." 

The coverage of the story was criticized from a journalistic perspective.  ''The media was too quick with covering this in a huge way -- the play the news got, the sensational page-1, top-of-the-newscast story,'' said Anantha Babbili, chairman of the journalism department at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. ''There was a given in the tone and the tenor of the media that Irvin and Williams were guilty until proven innocent.''

Read that again.  There was a "given" in the tone and tenor of the media that the men were guilty.

While care was taken to insure the acccuser's good name was not sullied, Williams had the audacity to comment on the elephant in the room: "Who’s protecting the fact that my life has been messed up by people who are supposed to be searching for the truth?" After it was all over, Williams blew the lid off any suggestion that the media coverage of the event was fair.  "How can there be fairness when there is no balance?  The press never asked for my side of the story until the damage was done."  No one of influence defended him during the ordeal because, he correctly noted, "that doesn’t sell papers or get folks to watch the evening news . . . ."

The Accuser Recants

Eventually, Shahravan was confronted with evidence that Irvin couldn't have been at Williams' house the night of the alleged attack. On Friday afternoon, January 9, 1997, Shahravan signed a confession of false allegations. Dallas police immediately dropped the case, noting the evidence was "conclusive" that no rape occurred. The charges were dropped so suddenly that even Williams' lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, did not know they had been dropped until after a public announcement was made. Sidney Zion, writing in the New York Daily News, heralded the moment as a watershed: "Nina Shahravan is the first woman to admit that she lied in a headline case about a date rape."

After law enforcement officials decided to charge her with a crime, Dallas police issued a brief but predictable statement: ''Victims of crime can be assured they face no legal repercussion for reporting factual incidents to the police in good faith.''

The Blame Game

Dallas police pointed fingers at the local NBC affiliate for forcing it to hold that initial news conference and reveal the names of the suspects.

The TV station, in turn, blamed the cops, because, the station said, they leaked word of search warrants to their reporter in order to publicize the rape charges.

The Media Reaction When The Charges Were Dropped

Two days after the case collapsed under the weight of Shahravan's lies, news outlets were still protecting her name.  "I charge no conspiracy here," wrote Sidney Zion in words that ought to be cut out and pasted on the refrigerators of every household where a Y-chromosome resides. "It's worse. It's brainwashing in living color. We have become so used to this stuff that we go on thinking of a date-rape accuser as victim even after she herself says she was a liar."  He continued: "What this does is turn the presumption of innocence on its head. If we do not as much as name the accuser, we are saying nothing less than that the accused is guilty. Run 'alleged' to a fare-thee-well and it makes no difference. This crime is so heinous that to name the victim is to rape her again. Yet date rape is the only charge where the question is not whodunit but whether it was done at all. When the law and the media conspire to keep the accuser's name private while spreading the names of the accused across the headlines we are in the world of Salem."

The media reaction when the charges were dropped was sadly typical.  Mr. Williams said: "Did you notice that no bulletin flashed across all these sport channels declaring that Michael Irvin and I were innocent? Where was the coverage? I bet you no one stopped ‘Baywatch’ or pulled the prime time movie to tell those same people the truth. Michael (Irvin) was right -- nobody was interested in the truth."

Williams made this chilling observation:  "It’s as if they’re all (media) quietly disappointed that we’re innocent."

Read that last quote again.  Ask yourself if that wasn't the precise reaction in some quarters after Duke lacrosse.

''Rerun it, rewrite it, reprint it,'' Irvin said, challenging reporters to cover news of his being cleared with the same fervor with which they covered the news of his being accused. ''Just like you did, with the same intensity that you did. The same intensity. Don't lose the intensity. Don't lose the intensity.''

"I want to hear ‘I’m sorry’ with the same intensity that they accused me with," said Williams. 

Thirteen years later, Williams is still waiting to hear it.

The Civil Action

Messrs. Irvin and Williams went on to file a civil action for libel, fraud, and invasion of privacy against Dallas NBC affiliate KXAS and its reporter who spearheaded publicizing the story.  "Erik and Michael were primarily concerned with sending a message to the press, the police, and the people of Dallas," said Williams' lawyer. "They want to be respected as people. They have the same interest in being treated decently as anyone else."

The one party who was not sued was the false accuser. "I just thought she would make a better witness than a defendant," said Williams' lawyer. The strategy paid off.  Shahravan aided the players' case by suggesting that the TV reporter was pushing her to create a story about the two players. 

The detective in charge of the original rape investigation also pointed fingers at the TV reporter.  He revealed that on the night of the alleged "rape," Shahravan was carrying a tape recorder that the TV reporter had given her. She had used it previously to tape Williams, at the reporter's request. The suggestion was that the TV station was so aggressive to find a story that it was helping to create one.

In the end, the TV station agreed to settle with the two men for $1.1 million apiece.

Shahravan's attorney made an assertion so astounding that it should be enshrined in the hall of fame of inanities: ''She has more guts than anyone involved in the Dallas Cowboys organization. She made a mistake, but she corrected it.'' 


So what are the lessons from this awful affair? For one thing, the New York Times wrote this: "Some experts who monitor news organizations said today that the episode should prod the news business into re-evaluating how it covers high-profile accusations, especially when the credibility of those leveling them cannot be immediately judged."

Now, many years after the fact, we see how that re-evaluation turned out. Nothing has changed.

Law enforcement found the entire affair a cause for alarm -- but not because of the harm to innocent men and boys falsely accused of the vile crime of rape. "For people who are generally skeptical about this issue, this will feed all of their beliefs about rape being women who cry rape when they have not been victimized," said Linda Fairstein, chief of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan district attorney's office.

Tom Charron, president of the National College of District Attorneys, said Ms. Shahravan's false allegation will harm legitimate rape cases across the country for years to come. "I cannot tell you how much damage this does in our efforts to have rape allegations taken seriously by the courts and the public," he said. "Rape charges are already tough enough to prove. This kind of high-profile incident makes it even harder." Mr. Charron said this case shows that police and prosecutors must be very careful to find corroborating evidence to support rape accusations.

In the end, the Williams/Irvin false rape claim was a garden variety, but very high profile, example of how a zealous news media, greedy for headlines, and a law enforcement apparatus, afraid of being second-guessed by a public in mortal fear of rape, joined hands with a false accuser in an unholy alliance to badly damage the reputations of two innocent men. The word of an unreliable witness was transmogrified into the truth -- by the news media and by the public pronouncements of law enforcement.

Imagine if the Dallas police had made the announcement about the accusation by noting that the "evidence" consisted solely of the word of an unreliable witness who might have made two other false rape claims in the past.  Would the reputations of Irvin and Williams have been badly tarnished by that?  More likely, they would have garnered immediate and widespread sympathy.  But, you see, the truth didn't fit the preferred narrative of always believing an accusation by a woman against privileged alpha-males.

Although law enforcement otherwise did it's job and investigated and dropped the false claim, that doesn't excuse the Dallas police department's initial press conference, where an untested allegation by a not-so-reliable witness was paraded to the world as the truth.

The good names of innocent males -- even privileged athletes with checkered pasts -- should not be regarded as mere flotsam just so a TV station can snag big ratings, and a police department can avoid being second-guessed by women's groups.

The most disheartening thing of all is that the same sorts of scenarios continue to play out with cookie cutter redundancy.  Remember this case?  Sidney Zion at the New York Daily News prophetically asked the following: "Will the law and the media learn the lessons of The Woman vs. Dallas Cowboys?"  His answer was not encouraging.  "The first returns look bleak. The sportswriters who vilified the players have been surly, at best, in their half-apologies. Some have said, 'Don't worry, they'll do it again.'"

Indeed, thirteen years later, we know the answer to Mr. Zion's question.  No, Sidney, the law and the media have learned nothing from the case.  Or the countless cases that followed.  Absolutely nothing.