Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it really necessary to destroy the name of a boy by painting him as a rapist before he's found guilty?

The following issue deserves a serious public debate, but I can't imagine one happening. Not in an era marked by law-and-order blood-lust: not in an era where, as Roy Black said, "there now is a far greater stigma for men accused of rape" than for women who make the accusation.

Last March, a news report started off as follows: "During a basketball game at Campbell High School in Smyrna last month, a 15-year-old boy forced a 14-year-old girl in a bathroom, threw her onto the floor and raped her, according to a criminal warrant released Thursday." 

That news story, and every subsequent news story about this incident, published the boy's name, and some even published his photograph.

The boy was arrested and charged as an adult with committing rape, aggravated sexual battery and false imprisonment. The girl, who was and still is unidentified, told police that the boy held her in a bear hug position on the floor of a bathroom at a high school basketball game, and used one hand to commit the assault, while the other hand pinned down her left shoulder. "The victim [sic] repeatedly told said accused no and to stop," the warrant stated.

We're not printing the boy's name here. You can easily find it if for yourself if it's so important to you. We want to make sure a Google search of the boy's name doesn't lead people here in the first instance.

Teen males who are alleged to have committed rape and who are charged as adults (and it is common to charge teen males accused of rape as adults) typically are not afforded anonymity by U.S. news outlets.

In contrast, teens who are alleged to have committed offenses deemed by society to be less serious -- even offenses that, depending on the circumstances, can cause more harm than rape (e.g., telling rape lies) -- are afforded anonymity.

Generally, there aren't any laws that regulate whether a teen's name is published. The decision is left to the discretion of executives in the highly competitive news industry, where news reports of scary sex crimes committed by white middle class boys attract viewers.

The boy was expelled from school and has been home-schooled ever since. 

Now, seven months later, all the charges have been dropped because the District Attorney said: "I can’t prove it.”  It is an unfounded claim; a classic "he said/she said" rape case. In rape cases, unless the female accuser recants, it's often impossible to definitively rule out a rape claim as "false."

Since the D.A. can't prove that a rape occurred, in a perfect world, the claim would be treated as if it never happened. But, of course, in the real world, the harm to the boy can't be undone any more than the toothpaste can be put back in the tube.  The boy's name and picture have been splashed all over the news in connection with a vile rape.

And worse, the Internet insures that the boy's name will be destroyed with a permanence and a completeness not formerly possible. There was a time, less than twenty years ago, when a news report of this nature would have had a limited shelf-life.  Although someone intent on investigating the boy's background would have been able to uncover the charge, it was possible for someone in this boy's situation to grow up, move away, and live mostly unscathed from the horrors of an unfounded rape allegation lodged against him in his youth.

Then along came Google. Now, and for the rest of this boy's life, anytime anyone Googles his name, they will find that he was charged with a heinous sex crime. Prospective romantic interests will need only to Google his name to be scared off by his past. What employer will take a chance on him and risk the wrath of local women's groups?

Decades of feminist posturing that "women don't lie about rape" make it all the more problematic for him. Too many women do lie about rape.

What won't be readily apparent to anyone who stumbles across this boy's name in a Google search is that the charge was apparently made on the say so of one girl.  Most casual readers will assume that since the police arrested him and since the district attorney charged him with a crime, and since the newspaper reported it, he must have done it.

As we've demonstrated on this blog time and time again in "he said/she said" rape cases, that assumption is nonsense. Prosecutors across the country who prosecute sexual assault cases lacking physical evidence constantly face the dilemma about whether to rely largely on "victim" testimony. “There’s nothing more difficult than screening a ‘he said, she said’ case,” said Scott Burns, National District Attorneys Association executive director. Society wants aggressive prosecutions for sex crimes, and sometimes that means relying on one person’s word against another’s, Burns said.  See here.  Nevertheless, in the court of public opinion, the accusation becomes its own conviction.

We don't know exactly what happened here. But does anyone doubt that a girl in her early teens has a strong motivation to lie about consensual sexual encounters?  The question scarcely survives its statement.

So what grand journalistic purpose was served by publishing this boy's name, given the potential harm to him?  How do we justify callously destroying only teen males but not their teen accusers in "he said/she said" rape claims?  If the public has the right to know the name of a boy accused of rape, the public also has the right to know the name of the rape accuser, doesn't it?  Yet, news outlets have made a policy decision to shield the identities of rape accusers because the embarrassment and stigma of being named might prevent other women from coming forward to report their rapes.

This particular boy, like many similarly situated boys, has suffered far more than a little embarrassment by being named. His life has been altered forever -- at a very young age, in a very negative way, about an alleged crime that, like it or not, is very easy to lie about.

A blog, aptly named Quintessential Crap, discussed this case when it broke, and her take on it is symptomatic of the problem.  The blogger published the boy's name and photograph, and said she "almost came unglued" when she saw a news report that sought to humanize the boy.  "The whole story was spun in a way that cast doubt on the credibility and truthfulness of the victim!" (Those are her words: "the victim.") Then she seemed to suggest that the girl in the bathroom is likely a rape victim on the basis of generalized rape statistics.

Except this wasn't a generalized case. This was a case that charged one flesh-and-blood boy. Lost on that blogger, and I am certain many others, is this fact: on the basis of an unfounded rape claim that the female accuser might have lied about, this boy has had his name destroyed while his accuser's anonymity is secure. That's fair to this boy . . . how?  And she has a conniption because one news outlet sought to humanize the boy in some small way?  Really?

The girl in this case is unlikely to face any charges, the district attorney said.

Of course not. In "he said/she said" rape cases, only the male is assumed to be lying, even when he isn't.