The students, all female survivors of sexual assault and harassment while attending UC Berkeley, allege that the university administration failed to properly respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
A coalition of 30 current and former students of the University of California, Berkeley announced Wednesday that they will be filing Title IX and Clery complaints against the university with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Clery Compliance Division (CCD). The students, all female survivors of sexual assault and harassment while attending UC Berkeley, allege that the university administration failed to properly respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
At a press conference at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Wednesday afternoon, six students who are sexual assault and harassment survivors gave statements regarding their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on the Berkeley campus. They were joined by fellow students and Berkeley alumni in a showing of solidarity and support. The students called on the university to be held accountable, and for both the OCR and CCD to investigate their claims.
The OCR delivered a letter to college administrators in 2011, stating that sexual violence or harassment of students interferes with their “right to receive an education free from discrimination,” and universities not complying with the laws regarding the reporting of “criminal conduct,” including sexual violence, constitutes a violation of a student’s civil rights under Title IX.
Sofie Karasek, one of the organizers of the Berkeley coalition, told Rewire that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in February 2012. After reporting the incident to university officials, and despite three other sexual assault survivors reporting the same student, the student was only found in violation of the university’s Code of Student Conduct; he was allowed to graduate early.
After Berkeley’s response to her sexual assault, Karasek sought a way to hold the university accountable. Last May, Karasek was part of a group of Berkeley students who filed a complaint with the OCR under the Clery Act, which requires all colleges to publicly report crime statistics, including stats for sexual assault.
Eight months later, Karasek says the Clery complaint has yet to be investigated. Despite multiple attempts to contact the Department of Education about the complaint‘s status, the students have received no response. “The parallels between Berkeley and the Department of Education is really striking,” Karasek told Rewire. “The intent of each may differ, but the impact is the same.”
After filing the complaint, Karasek said that many students came forward who wanted to share their stories. In the months since the original Clery complaint was filed, a coalition of students came together to seek action.
Included with the complaint are each students’ narratives, which explain in detail their experience with sexual assault and sexual harassment on the UC Berkeley campus. Rewire was provided with five of these narratives, and a review of their content revealed different experiences with sexual assault or sexual harassment but shared experiences with how they felt the university administration neglected to appropriately respond to their allegations.
In the narratives, students say they were not readily informed of resources available to them, discouraged from filing complaints by university officials, accused of fabricating being sexual assaulted to excuse poor academic performance, not fully advocated for by Title IX coordinators, left out of the investigative process, received little or no support from the university administration, and felt an overwhelming sense of fear for their safety and that their concerns were going unheard.
In her narrative, Shannon Thomas described being sexually harassed by a classmate, both in person and online. Despite the evidence in Thomas’ case, the OPHD officer said the case “likely did not fulfill the high threshold for student-to-student harassment” in the university’s Code of Student Conduct. Aryle Butler was sexually assaulted on two separate occasions by the same student, and was told by university officials that there was no recourse for her because the rapes occurred off-campus, despite taking place under university supervision during a university-supported program.
Former graduate students who attended Berkeley in the 1970s, Ruth Milkman and Linda Blum, both joined the coalition and submitted narratives sharing their experience at the college during their tenure. Their experience was strikingly similar to the experience of sexual assault survivors at Berkeley nearly four decades later; an administration whose response to claims of sexual harassment was described as “vague and noncommittal.”
There are steps that are being taken to address sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to the Obama administration’s task force, there is also legislation pending in the California Assembly to address the issue. In January 2014, Karasek advised California Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) on state legislation that would require that colleges report certain violent crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on or near campus to local law enforcement agencies.
Karasek said the actions being taken by the federal and the state government are a “good first step,” but that more action needs to be taken. She believes that the federal government needs to take further action and that universities should face more significant penalties from non-compliance with Title IX.
Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a public statement Tuesday on the university’s ongoing effort to address sexual assault prevent and response on campus. He said the university will be implementing the use of a “confidential survivor advocate,” an additional investigator to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, and an interim sexual misconduct policy “that allows survivors to appeal the resolution of sexual misconduct cases.”
We need more justices with deeper roots in different communities and a broader worldview than white male candidates from Yale or Harvard, ones who are not devoted to the inevitable blind spots of a group of men who lived more than 200 years ago.
To fill the vacancy left on the Supreme Court by the death last weekend of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, President Obama will nominate a new justice. That nominee should be a woman of color.
The thought that Obama will pick another justice has sent the GOP into a tizzy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and others in the party are ignoring history and the Constitution to argue vehementlythat Obama doesn’t have the authority to nominate anyone because it’s an election year. Instead, they say, that nomination should be left to the next president, a claim Obama has rightly swatted away.
This fight is, in reality, reflective of broad conservative efforts to hold onto a power structure set up two centuries ago by white males who didn’t just ignore, but had no concept of the rights of women or people of color. We need judges with broader perspectives, ones that are not unthinkingly devoted to a concept of America or of rights written by men who, no matter how otherwise brilliant, were not considering “all the people” when they wrote the Constitution.
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The battle over this nomination is part of a longer-running struggle between the GOP and Obama. In January, long before Scalia died, the GOP-controlled Senate, egged on by the Heritage Institute, declared a blockade of sorts—a Senate work stoppage if you will—on confirmations of Obama’s judicial nominees. Under McConnell’s rein, the approval rate of federal judges has been slower than any period since 1969.
This political jockeying is also rooted in two long-running and intertwined debates about how the Constitution should be viewed and who gets to interpret it.
On one hand are the proponents of so-called originalism, the argument that the Constitution is a fixed document subject only to the most literal interpretation. On the other are those who see it as a living document,through which American jurisprudence, concerned as it must be with issues not previously foreseen and the rights of those not previously recognized, is built and sustained by the values on which the Constitution was based.
This is a false dichotomy that, I believe, hides a deeper struggle being waged by a white male establishment aligned with the wealthy and with corporate interests that, despite their collective power, are nonetheless threatened by rapidly changing demographics and a resurgence of collective organizing by progressive movements.
Originalists—often synonymous with conservatives—claim they want judges who won’t “legislate” from the bench. But all judges interpret the law; it’s what judges do. They have one job, and they inevitably bring with them their views of the law, its interpretation, and what came before it. What conservatives really want are judges who will decide cases favoring an outcome aligned with their own interpretation of a given issue, especially with regard to elevating corporate personhood, delegitimizing female personhood, and allowing restrictions on voting rights.
In fact, conservatives’ most revered hero, Justice Scalia, was among the most activist of activist justices. As Adam Cohen, a lawyer and former assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times,wrote in 2005:
The idea that liberal judges are advocates and partisans while judges like Justice Scalia are not is being touted everywhere these days, and it is pure myth. Justice Scalia has been more than willing to ignore the Constitution’s plain language, and he has a knack for coming out on the conservative side in cases with an ideological bent. The conservative partisans leading the war on activist judges are just as inconsistent: they like judicial activism just fine when it advances their own agendas.
Justices are not immune to bias either. We’ve already seen the most self-proclaimed “originalists” make up their own facts and use their own lenses through which to see and interpret the law. Scalia famously—but erroneously and shockingly—claimed that Black college students “couldn’t make it” in competitive universities. This was not based on fact, data, or personal experience; nor on an understanding of race, poverty, and the educational system. He likely arrived at his assertion through an amalgam of conservative talking points, internal bias, and intellectual laziness about the realities faced by people outside his circles and ideologies.
Similarly, Justice Anthony Kennedy either decided on his own, or is so taken with the mythology of the far right, that he wrote an opinion in a reproductive rights case proclaiming that most women have regrets about abortion, a statement that is not only right out of the anti-choice movement’s playbook, but has been widely refuted by scientific evidence.
So even while decrying “bias” and “empathy,” the right knows—and, indeed, depends on the fact—that judges’ thinking can be influenced by ideology and unproven claims. Otherwise, there would not be a years-long effort underway to influence Kennedy’s thinking on abortion leading up to cases like Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
The GOP is disgruntled not so much about literalists versus activists, but that a president they’ve worked for eight years to discredit gets to nominate another justice—one who is more likely than not to be someone the president feels will interpret the law fairly and with real people in mind. That’s why McConnell is holding up all the other appointments as well.
And that is the second part of the struggle underway: representation on the Court, and whether there is value, as Obama has asserted, in a judiciary that “looks like America.” Obama, and others, have argued that empathy and real-world experience are important qualifications in a judge, and that the courts should play a role as a “bastion of equality and justice for [all] U.S. citizens.” And while this administration waited far too long to begin nominating judges, to date, those nominated and confirmed have indeed made the judiciary look more “like America” than ever before.
In a 2014 New Yorker article, Jeffrey Toobin wrote:
Obama’s judicial nominees look different from their predecessors. In an interview in the Oval Office, the President told me, “I think there are some particular groups that historically have been underrepresented—like Latinos and Asian-Americans—that represent a larger and larger portion of the population. And so for them to be able to see folks in robes that look like them is going to be important. When I came into office, I think there was one openly gay judge who had been appointed. We’ve appointed ten.”
Toobin further noted that 42 percent of Obama’s judgeships have gone to women, compared with 22 percent of George W. Bush’s judges and 29 percent of Bill Clinton’s. Thirty-six percent of President Obama’s judges have been people of color, compared with 18 percent for Bush and 24 percent for Clinton.
This, I believe, is what the right most fears: Judges who represent a greater diversity of experiences and views, and who have roots in different communities, will interpret laws with a greater understanding of their effects on real people. And that would threaten the very foundation of the house that white men built, upon which the claims of originalism appear to be based.
History provides a sense of what is at stake. Well over 200 years ago, from May through September 1787, an esteemed group of men meeting in Philadelphia collaborated on writing the Constitution of the United States. The majority of the 55 men attending the Constitutional Convention became signatories to the document, and the thinking and writing of many others contributed to its development, some of whom, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are considered the Founding Fathers of this country.
Two years later, the U.S. Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, thereby fulfilling Article III of the Constitution, which placed the judicial power of the new federal government in “one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts” as Congress deemed necessary. The first Supreme Court was composed of six justices, a number later expanded to nine justices to accommodate a growing federal judicial system.
Apart from their shared role in history and the fact they were men, the signatories to the Constitution also had other things in common: They were all white Protestants.
From the beginning, the Judiciary Act and the judiciary that resulted did indeed reflect a certain America: the one seen by the men in power. In laying out the roles and responsibilities of justices of the courts, the word “he” appears 23 times. This is no accident. The U.S. Constitution was written by white Protestant men for white Protestant men, albeit whilerecognizing the religious freedom of other white men.
These documents were written at a time when white men were still killing and taking over the lands of Native Americans, and when slavery was the foundation of the U.S. economy. At least some Founding Fathers were slave owners, and the notion of basic human rights for Black people or other persons of color simply did not exist.
Women were not counted as people either, at least not in any political sense. As wealthy white men wrote declarations and constitutions, their wives were meant to bear and raise the children of, run households for, and support any and all needs of their husbands and fathers. They could not vote, rarely owned property, and were dependent on men for status and income.
By and large, and until recently, this type of “originalism”—white Christian male as the normative standard—has remained largely unchallenged. The vast majority of justices have been white Christian males, predominantly Protestant with a few Catholics sprinkled in. As the slideshow below makes clear, that did not change even slightly for well over 100 years.
The first Catholic justice, Roger B. Taney, was appointed in 1836. It took until 1916 before the Court had its first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, another 50 years to nominate Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, in 1967, and 14 more years from that to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice. The second Black justice, Clarence Thomas, was not nominated until 1991.
Today, nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population is female, a majority demographic. And the non-Hispanic white population, as traditionally defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, is an increasingly small share of the population. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court is now comprised of four white men and one Black man, all of whom range in age from their early 60s to late 70s, and three women justices, two of whom are also white. Only four justices in 112 have been women.
The Supreme Court has therefore never been representative of the broader population of the country. In general, it has continued to represent the “original America” as seen by its authors—which, again, was itself never a true picture of the United States.
Given this history, it’s also fairly clear why there is a huge chasm between constitutional originalists and those who view the Constitution as a living document, one with consistent values that nonetheless have to be applied to new and different norms and questions. If you are a man or a person of wealth whose needs, rights, and economic interests fit comfortably under that original interpretation of law, you don’t need to reflect on the meanings or implications for other people of your judgments and decisions.
If, on the other hand, you recognize that there are historical injustices that were never even seen as injustices, and therefore never contemplated at the time of the writing of the Constitution, you probably believe some interpretation is necessary. If you thought a woman’s role was to bear children and be a homemaker, you didn’t need to protect or interpret her rights in a constitution. The freedoms, needs, aspirations, and rights of non-white, non-male persons simply were not considerations in that original document. Securing the rights of women and people of color, among other groups, therefore requires interpreting the values that underlie the Constitution to support them.
To be sure, there are some people of color who themselves are aligned with ultra-conservatives and the claims of originalism except when it doesn’t suit their purposes. One of them is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But as Michael Eric Dyson noted on NPR’s Morning Edition:
[W]e have, for instance, on the court now Judge Clarence Thomas, an African-American man to be sure but not committed to the fundamental practices as they have been historically adjudicated and put forth by civil rights communities and other African-American people. So the first qualification is a profound legal commitment to practices of justice. But certainly, that does make a difference in terms of the identity of the person who’s being chosen for that spot.
The current composition of the Court is unacceptable if only based on sheer demographics and the fact that there are many eminently qualified candidates of color for the bench. But it is especially so given the reality that every single decision under consideration by the Supreme Court now, in the recent past, and in the near future has disproportionate implications for women and people of color.
Profound questions are being asked. For example: Who can vote, under what conditions, and facing what kinds of obstacles placed in their way by those who’d rather stifle their voices and de-legitimize their votes? What is “religious freedom” and how freely should this ill-defined and vague notion be used as a means of denying people health care and the rights of women as persons?
Do the people whose bodies contain reproductive organs have a fundamental right to self-determination or are their bodies simply vessels for the production of other bodies even when against their will? Who gets to decide the meaning of “undue burden” in exercising a right, whether that means accessing reproductive health care or exercising the right to vote? (And in all honesty, what would Justice Kennedy know about undue burdens in any case?)
What exactly is “discrimination,” and how hard do you have to work for how many years to prove it? Whogets paid for what, when, and under what conditions? Do government agencies charged with protecting our health and the environment on which we all depend have the authority to actually protect our health and environment? Is reproductive health care actually health care? Is a corporation (or soon a robot?) a person with rights equal to or superseding those who are living, breathing individuals?
This is the real fight. We need more justices with deeper roots in different communities and a broader worldview than white male candidates from Yale or Harvard, ones who are not devoted to the inevitable blind spots of a group of men who lived more than 200 years ago. We need justices who offer perspectives on the facts and realities of people of color and women. And yes, the extent to which they can empathize with people and experiences outside of themselves matters a great deal.
There are more than a few female candidates of color, each of whom are more than capable and qualified to be Supreme Court nominees. Among them are Kamala Harris, attorney general of California, Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney General, Melissa Murray, a professor at UC Berkeley, and Jacqueline Nguyen, a judge on the Ninth Circuit.
Moreover, we should not stop there. Since women now make up the majority of this country’s population, we really need, for the very first time in history, to have a majority of women on the Court. Period. This is not about quotas, it’s not about litmus tests. It’s about fundamental human rights, fairness, and the ability to see the world as it really is, and not just from a cloistered building protected from protest.
The right will be aghast at this idea. And truth be told, so will more than a few self-declared liberal men. When you perceive yourself as righteous in every way and the center of the universe, you don’t tend to think of other universes. Because their own needs were reflected in the documents, I am guessing none of the founders lay awake at night thinking about the future implications of the Constitution for women and people of color. I am guessing reproductive and sexual justice, and expanded voting rights for all people, were not of immediate concern and that existential threats like climate change were not remotely in the realm of possibility given that cross-state pollution and fossil fuels came much later. For these and other more expediently political reasons, I don’t think that the four “conservative” justices on the Court lay awake thinking of these things either.
We need people who do think of these things and who can apply core values laid out by the Constitution, using thoughtful and considered judgment, to the issues of the day.
The next nominee—in fact, the next two—should be women of color. Because original intent or no, there are a majority of people out there who do not look like—think, live, or enjoy the privileges of— the Founding Fathers. They have the most at stake in the coming years, and they deserve, finally, to see a court that looks more and more like this America.
Unlike criminal trials, which require the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil trials have a much lower bar, requiring only that a plaintiff persuade a judge or jury that it is more likely than not that the events occurred.
This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
Alfredo Simón, a former pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who is now a free agent, is big for a baseball player.
The 34-year-old stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 265 pounds, according to his official stats. Simón’s stature may be imposing on the field, but it seems even more so when reading through a civil complaint lodged in 2014 that accuses him of rape.
According to his accuser, the assault occurred when Simón was in Washington, D.C., playing with his old team, the Cincinnati Reds, in a game against the Washington Nationals. The 29-year-old woman, who in court documents is named Jane Doe, says she met Simón at a club, where she consumed several drinks and became intoxicated. Doe left with Simón in the early morning hours of April 28, 2013, and they started making out in his hotel room.
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Simón, she says, held her down despite her resistance, and anally raped her. Each time she tried to flee, she says, he would push her back onto the bed. Doe says he eventually yanked her by her hair and ejaculated in her face.
A forensic nurse examiner recorded Doe’s injuries in the sexual assault exam she took at the hospital later that day. Four days later, Doe reported the assault to police. According to the court documents, the rape kit detailed vaginal and anal abrasions and anal tears—injuries that, forensic medical experts would later testify in the civil case, corroborated her story. These injuries were not, however, recorded in photographs. Doe declined the nurse’s offer to snap images of her injuries, perhaps not understanding their potential value in bolstering her version of events.
Instead, an image that did make it into Doe’s police file was a photocopy of her cell phone exchange with the friend she had gone out with that night. Doe told her friend she was leaving the club to go “fuck the baseball player.” In her initial interview with police, Doe explained that she had intended to have sex with Simón. But, as noted in her civil complaint, she withdrew her consent once Simón “started to get rough with her.”
Police did not interview Simón, according to court records.
Ultimately, the evidence gathered wasn’t enough for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes crimes that occur in D.C. The prosecutors presented this case to a grand jury, but notes from Doe’s police file indicate it was the U.S. Attorney’s Office that made the decision not to file charges against Simón, citing “insufficient evidence” and “good defense.”
Historically, that would have been the end of the matter, at least from the defendant’s perspective.
But Doe did not accept the state’s view as the final say on her case. Instead, she filed a civil lawsuit against Simón, claiming $10 million in punitive damages for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and $5 million to compensate her for medical expenses and lost wages. The case ultimately settled for a fraction of that amount—$150,000, Simón’s attorneys told USA Today—and Simón did not admit any wrongdoing.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., would not comment on Doe’s case. “We are legally barred from providing information about confidential grand jury proceedings,” he said in an email.
Legal experts told Rewire that by suing her alleged attacker in civil court, Jane Doe joined the ranks of a growing movement in the field of sexual assault.
Though there is no comprehensive national database that tracks the number of civil cases brought against alleged perpetrators of sexual assault, anecdotal evidence suggests a trend in the United States for victims to seek civil redress.
Every year, thousands of cases involving allegations of sexual assault are abandoned in the United States due to a range of reasons. These include lackluster police investigations, lack of forensic evidence, a victim’s unwillingness to testify, and, according to a recent White House report, because “law enforcement officers and prosecutors are not fully trained on the nature of these crimes or how best to investigate and prosecute them.”
“We [in society] generally don’t second-guess people who say that they were burglarized or say that their car was stolen or who say that they were assaulted, but we absolutely second-guess people that claim that they were sexually assaulted,” former special victims prosecutor Roger Canaff told Rewire in a phone interview. “We either are skeptical of the truth of the allegation or we look to blame that person.”
Unlike criminal trials, which require the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil trials have a much lower bar, requiring only that a plaintiff persuade a judge or jury that it is more likely than not that the events occurred.
For many victims, it is easy to see the appeal of choosing a venue where they are at least held to a more attainable burden of proof than in a criminal court. Sometimes they file a civil suit in addition to pursuing criminal charges, or they only make a civil complaint.
Civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, whose Los Angeles-based firm has specialized in representing women who have been victims of various types of sexual abuse and harassment, says she is seeing increasing numbers of women consider civil remedies as a form of justice after they have been sexually attacked.
“More and more, I think victims are very seriously considering the civil option, because it’s empowering,” Allred told Rewire in a phone interview. “You’re moving from being a victim to a survivor to a fighter for change.”
This shift in mentality is especially apparent in the civil claims against Bill Cosby, who has become the face of one of the most high-profile cases of sexual assault allegations in the past decade. Allred’s firm—Allred, Maroko & Goldberg—represents about half of the nearly 60 women who have so far come forward with claims, reaching as far back as the ’60s, against the man formerly known as “America’s Dad.” Coverage of the claims against Cosby has intensified over the past two years, but the fact remains that the fallen Hollywood star has yet to serve time for any of the allegations against him. Cosby faced his first criminal charges in one of these cases only very recently. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania charged him with sexual assault in late December for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004.
For his accusers, Allred says civil court offers women another opportunity for justice. And she says the civil route is empowering because, unlike criminal prosecutions where the state is in charge, civil cases enable victims to decide whether and how to proceed in their case.
“It’s the case of the victim, not the case of the people of that state,” Allred said. “As [people] see women standing up and not being afraid to fight back, it does have a ripple effect, and it does inspire other survivors to think, ‘Well, if she can do it, maybe I can do it, too.’”
Rewire’s review of dozens of federal civil lawsuits involving sexual assault filed since 2012—available in public court databases and the National Crime Victim Bar Association’s civil case database—indicate that outside of a handful of deep-pocketed athletes and celebrities, most sexual assault survivors are seeking damages from third parties. The trend appears to be especially apparent with complainants at schools and in institutions, particularly correctional facilities, where prisoners are vulnerable to sexual assaults at the hands of prison guards and fellow inmates, and often have little recourse outside of civil redress.
Perhaps the most prominent use of civil laws to win justice for sexual assault victims has been by college students, who have forced universities to take campus sexual assault more seriously via cases filed under a 1972 civil rights law known as Title IX. The law requires educational institutions to take proactive action to ensure that students are not subject to sexual discrimination, including rape or other forms of sexual assault, such as harassment and sexual touching—or groping—that falls short of penetration.
Over the past few decades, survivors and advocates have leveraged the law’s requirements in order to build awareness of the problem of assaults on college campuses and in public high schools. A glowing reception at the Sundance Film Festival of the documentary The Hunting Ground, about on-campus rape, has only propelled momentum for solutions to combat attacks at universities.
And student advocates are explicit about the advantages that Title IX can have over criminal prosecutions.
The group Know Your IX, started in 2013 by a group of sexual assault survivors and their supporters, explains on its website that “many victims of sexual violence don’t want to turn to the criminal justice system.”
The group states: “[Victims] may fear skepticism and abuse from police, prosecutors, or juries; they may not want to go through the ordeal of a long trial; they may fear retaliation from their assailant, who will most likely not end up prosecuted, let alone convicted; and they may be hesitant to send their assailants to prison. But even survivors who do report to the police are often abandoned by the system.”
By contrast, Title IX requires schools to investigate every report of sexual assault. And as with all other civil claims, the victim must prove that it is more likely than not that the alleged assault occurred, rather than that the crime occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Like Title IX activists seeking cultural change in the way institutions manage sexual assault cases, some victims have used a similar approach to spur action on the processing of rape kits.
Between 2012 and 2014, seven anonymous women from Harvey, Illinois, sued the Chicago suburb for the county’s failure to process and test rape kits that had been collected after they reported rapes between 1999 and 2008.
Like many jurisdictions in the United States, Harvey’s police had not begun testing the kits, even though they contained evidence collected from victims who had endured forensic exams that often last hours and can be invasive and distressing.
One of the victims, known as Jane Doe I, first reported being raped by her stepfather in 1997, when she was 11 years old. She submitted to a rape kit exam, which found semen in her vagina.
According to court records, Doe I’s mother reunited with the stepfather, Robert Buchanan, early into the police investigation, and asked her daughter to blame the assault on a schoolmate. Doe I recanted, as is common in sexual assault cases involving minors and family members, and police closed the investigation without attempting to match the DNA sample to Buchanan or to conduct further investigation, according to the complaint and subsequent court records.
In the civil case, Doe I testified that Buchanan went on to assault her for several years. She estimated that he raped her more than 100 times between 1998 and 2004, but her previous experience deterred her from reporting the crimes to police. Police tested her rape kit in 2007 and found a match to Buchanan’s DNA. City attorneys finally convicted Buchanan of sexually assaulting a minor in 2012 and sentenced him to six years in prison.
The City of Harvey awarded Jane Doe I $1.2 million and awarded the remaining six plaintiffs a combined $241,250, according to the Chicago Tribune. Together, these women, many of whom were minors at the time of their assaults, filed a total of three class action lawsuits that centered in part on the county’s failing to process or preserve more than 200 rape kits. Cook County prosecutors discovered these abandoned kits after raiding Harvey Police Department headquarters. Of these kits, only 50 were deemed viable for testing—including those of the anonymous plaintiffs in these cases—and led to charges against 14 individuals.
Toward the end of 2014, Mattie Bright desperately searched for a new high school for her daughter.
In November 2014, Bright’s then-15-year-old said three boys raped her in the middle of the school day in an abandoned classroom at Rosa Fort High School, in rural Tunica, Mississippi. Though police apprehended the alleged perpetrators, they returned to school two days later. One of the boys continued to ride the same bus as Bright’s daughter for months.
The criminal case is still pending, but last summer Bright sued the Tunica County School District in civil court, seeking damages to compensate her daughter’s psychological and emotional distress. Tunica is a rural town, and Bright cannot afford the hefty tuition of an all-girls private school, one of the closer options, said Stephanie Morris, the civil attorney representing Bright and her daughter.
The costs associated with this traumatic event continue to swell, Morris told Rewire.
“She has been severely depressed and having chest pains,” she said, of Bright’s daughter. “She needs counseling, extensive counseling. Quite naturally, this is something that affects women for years and years to come. Some people need counseling for the rest of their lives.”
However, civil lawsuits allow victims to fight for compensation for the full range of their injuries—medical and psychological—and in that way, these suits can better reflect the true damage inflicted by rape and sexual assault.
According to the complaint Bright filed in August, she is suing the Tunica County School District and school officials for not taking proper action after the alleged rape occurred and for acting indifferently to the verbal and online sexual harassment her daughter allegedly experienced following the assault. The complaint claims that only when local media began reporting on the alleged attack four months later did the school take any independent action, firing two teachers and expelling the students implicated in the attack.
Katherine Kerby, the attorney representing the Tunica County School District and other school officials, declined to comment on the case.
Bright is also seeking punitive damages, as well as a requirement that the school district implement steps to prevent sex-based discrimination and harassment and to fully investigate these incidents as they occur. The amount of damages sought is unspecified.
“The school district was so indifferent to what had happened to this child,” Morris said. “So, punitive damages would be appropriate just to deter them from this type of response, or non-response, in the future.”
While the civil route offers some advantages, legal experts warn that it cannot take the place of robust criminal prosecution. Not only does it fail to remove dangerous individuals from society, but it also only works against defendants or institutions with deep pockets, a reality that excludes the majority of sexual assault cases.
After all, civil lawsuits are only an option for those whose perpetrators happen to have enough money to make them worth suing, a glaring inequality that lawyers and experts say will limit the extent to which civil action can be used to combat sexual assault.
University of Oregon law professor Tom Lininger in his 2008 Duke Law Journal article “Is It Wrong to Sue for Rape?” argues that lower-income defendants are more likely to serve time than rich defendants, who are more likely to pay for their crimes in civil courts.
Allred says that inequality is simply an unfortunate reality of an imperfect system.
“As the old saying goes, ‘You can’t get blood out of a stone,’” she said. “You know, is it worth it to spend hundreds of hours in a civil lawsuit against a perpetrator who has no assets? Where is the justice in the end?”
For LW, a resident of Washington, D.C., the fact that her alleged attacker did not have substantial assets was just one of the factors that ruled out civil proceedings in her case.
In an interview with Rewire, LW, who asked to be identified by her initials, said she was drugged and raped by a man she met at a concert in October 2012. She said the man, a friend of a friend, offered her a vodka and Red Bull, which, she said, knocked her out almost immediately.
LW said she awoke the next morning to a bed covered in vomit and blood, faded memories, and the realization that she was no longer a virgin. LW was convinced she had a solid case, a prime piece of evidence being that her rape kit matched the offender’s semen.
LW’s victims’ rights attorney, Bridgette Stumpf, confirmed the facts LW laid out about her case with Rewire but said she could not reveal any privileged information about her client’s case. Stumpf is the co-founder and co-executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, a nonprofit that since 2012 has offered free legal, case-management, and advocacy services to all victims of crimes in the District.
LW said the U.S. Attorney’s Office told her in July 2014 that her case was not strong enough to go trial. Months later, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for LW’s police file, Stumpf and LW learned that her alleged rapist had changed his story. Initially, he denied raping LW and claimed he had simply brought her home. But when told his semen was found in a rape kit, LW said, he shifted his story, claiming they had had consensual sex. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on LW’s case.
LW seriously considered filing a civil lawsuit against the alleged attacker but ultimately decided against it.
“I decided it wasn’t for me,” LW said in a recent email. “It may seem that civil suits are ‘easier’ to win and are better at getting justice, but that comes with a price tag. The cases can be dragged out for a long time, the victim is put through intense questioning, sometimes even psych evals, and you have to re-live the whole experience. Plus, in a civil case, it is all about punitive damages. Most perpetrators don’t have money to pay to the victim, let alone anything else that you could sue for.”
And on top of that, even a successful civil suit would have failed to deliver the results LW said she most wanted. LW, like other rape survivors who spoke to Rewire, believes her alleged attacker has likely assaulted other women, or will again. LW is not alone in this thinking. Sexual assault researchers havefound that many rapists, including so-called date or acquaintance rapists, are repeat offenders.
“For me, I realized that what I wanted most was for my perpetrator to face criminal charges,” she said. “I wanted him to get jail time and be registered as a sex offender, and have his DNA in CODIS [the FBI’s national criminal database]. The statute in DC for criminal charges in rape cases is 15 years. I have hope that one day, my perpetrator will face criminal charges for the rapes he has committed, but civil charges wouldn’t help me sleep at night.”