For most of us, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” does not need an introduction. It’s a story that showcases segregated Depression-era Alabama, in which the story’s protagonist, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, wrongly accused, but later convicted, of rape.
Lee’s book, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1961, is hailed by many as a cornerstone in overcoming racial strife in the United States, as it depicted how wrongly blacks were treated in the rural South. The fictional story centers on overcoming the false rape accusation, which is not an unfamiliar storyline in American history.
One of the more prominent examples include the ordeals of the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused of rape in rural northwestern Alabama in 1931. Other examples include the 1987 false accusations of Tawana Brawley against five white men that widened the racial divide at the time and more recently the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case, in which three white members of that upper class team faced the scrutiny of an overzealous politically ambitious prosecutor, but in the end were falsely accused.
In every one of those examples, the accused, despite having later proved those accusations to be false, had their reputations damaged in some way — or in the Scottsboro Boys, the rest of their lives.
Rape is without question a terrible, awful thing and there’s no denying its existence. Unfortunately, some also seem too eager to use it in a way to promote an ideological agenda, which undermines our judicial system based on the common law principle of innocence until proven guilty.
Last month, Rolling Stone magazine published a story about a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party of a woman named “Jackie.” The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was meant to highlight UVA’s “troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults.”
Almost immediately, UVA president Teresa Sullivan suspended all fraternities on campus through the beginning of next year and vowed to work with local law enforcement to investigate the accusations while putting in place measures to prevent sexual assault in the future.
There is some irony in that nearly 200 years after founding father Thomas Jefferson created the University of Virginia, the institution’s governing policy appears to ignore a central tenet of American jurisprudence: the presumption of innocence.
The decision by Sullivan to figuratively shoot now and ask questions later would wind up, at least for now, to seemingly be an overreaction. Reports from The Washington Post poked several holes in the story, leading Rolling Stone to admit the story had problems.
Nonetheless, the damage has been done — a student organization and its members were convicted in the so-called “court of public opinion.”
Hopefully, we’ll later learn some of the facts of this story, but it’s clear for now that some never learned from those aforementioned past mistakes in which some parties are all-too eager to treat the serious allegation of rape as a crime that does not warrant due process.
Alarmingly, some supposedly credible voices have doubled down on a concept that defies the 200-plus-year practice of due process of the law in the United States.
In a story Saturday, Zerlina Maxwell, an analyst for the Post, penned a piece headlined, “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims.” (It was later amended to “No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims.”)
“We should always believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says,” Maxwell wrote. “Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. Even if Jackie fabricated her account, UVA should have taken her word for it until they could have proved otherwise. The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might de-friend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching, consuming his books, or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. These errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.”
That’s an incredible statement from Maxwell, and she’s not alone in her opinion.
Maxwell’s statement could apply to any crime, which is: a person may take some damage to their credibly as a human being while trying to prove they are innocent, but if you’re cleared in the end — no harm, no foul. The key difference from crimes other than rapes, however, is the accuser avoids public scrutiny since rape victims are protected with anonymity.
That’s not to suggest that they shouldn’t have the protection of anonymity. But it does create unfair situation for the accused, especially in high-profile situations that receive national attention like the Rolling Stone story on UVA.
This case, much like the Duke Lacrosse case years before, is complicated by the fact the accusations too conveniently fit the narrative of how some see and want others to perceive our society. That society is unjust because those who are recognized as being of privilege forcefully take advantage of those not of privilege. Thus, these sorts of cases often receive an unwarranted share of national attention.
If it backfires and the allegations are proven untrue, it does nothing but set the cause back. More importantly, it creates a more difficult atmosphere for actual rape victims.
America’s judicial tradition should trump promoting an overzealous focus on political correctness. Perhaps Sullivan, Maxwell and their ilk should pick up and read a copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as refresher for why that’s the case.