Despite being diametrically opposed during the criminal proceedings, those involved in the recent rape trial of a Spring Hill College (SHC) student share a belief that the case damages the #MeToo movement and discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward.
Spring Hill graduate Vassil Kokali, 23, has been in criminal court proceedings for the past 15 months, accused of sexually assaulting fellow student Audrey Cox on March 11, 2021, after a night in downtown Mobile. That saga came to an end last Thursday when a jury found him not guilty on all charges of rape, sodomy, burglary and sexual misconduct.
Last year, Cox made the bold decision of identifying herself as the victim and received substantial support online under the #MeToo banner. Since then, she has used her social media accounts to promote stories of other sexual assault victims, highlight alleged deficiencies in SHC’s policies and share background information on her case against Kokali.
#MeToo is a social advocacy movement against sexual assault and rape culture, in which women publicize their experiences of abuse. The movement became mainstream in 2017 with the high-profile exposure of sexual assault by film producer Harvey Weinstein and others. The movement gained steam in Alabama politics with the allegations levied against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and later in national politics when it fueled attacks on Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation.
While the movement has brought a widespread reckoning to overlooked sexual assault, it has also been questioned for its slogan, “Believe All Women,” which critics argue undermines due process and allows for the weaponization of false allegations.
Why and how Kokali’s case damages the #MeToo movement boils down to the claims in the trial itself. While Cox and Mobile County prosecutors argue last week’s verdict will ultimately stifle #MeToo momentum and discourage victims from confronting sexual assault, Kokali and his lawyers argue he is a victim of the “dark side” of #MeToo.
Consent and consequences
According to court testimony, Kokali and Cox met at the Saddle Up Saloon in downtown Mobile on March 11. Cox said she remembers meeting Kokali at the bar and having drinks, but from that point on, the night was a blur. According to Kokali’s account, the two began dancing with each other and kissing. At one point, Kokali said, he was invited back to Cox’s dorm room. After leaving the bar, Kokali went to Cox’s room where he claimed he knocked on the door and Cox let him in and the two had sex. However, Cox claims she never invited Kokali over and did not invite him inside.
In the days following the March 2021 encounter, Cox claimed she was “violently attacked” by Kokali and possibly drugged at the bar. She said when she woke up the next morning, she remembered little from the night before. Her legs were bruised and red, there were traces of blood in her room and her TV was on the floor.
Cox went public with her accusations later that month after she claimed college administrators showed “blatant disregard” for her and “hundreds” of other victims on campus.
Going public triggered a large support response for Cox and demands for action from SHC and local law enforcement. Special events were held on campus to address sexual assault and students circulated signed petitions calling for change.
The Catholic college also launched administrative proceedings against Kokali through its Title IX office and barred him from campus. He was also charged and arrested on multiple felony charges by Mobile County law enforcement.
The backlash led to a number of concessions by the college, including a pledge to activate a coordinated community response team (CCRT) “to help eliminate sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.” The college also promised to initiate a security audit on residence halls, provide sexual assault awareness and intervention training, and hire a special program director to supervise the effort.
A Title IX administrative trial was held in September 2021 and found Kokali had violated the school’s sexual misconduct policies. However, the penalties for the violation were minute, simply delaying Kokali’s diploma by six months. Kokali’s lawyers claim the administrative hearing was based on lower standards of proof and Kokali could not present evidence or call in witnesses who contradicted Cox’s claims. The results of that hearing were introduced as evidence during Kokali’s criminal trial.
Kokali’s criminal trial this month lasted eight days and featured key moments where Cox and a second alleged victim took the stand to testify that Kokali had raped them. The other individual declined to pursue criminal charges. After the state rested its case, Kokali took the stand to offer his account of what happened. A number of character witnesses and even former sexual partners vouched for Kokali’s character.
Lab test results revealed the blood found in the room belonged to Kokali, not Cox. Kokali maintained he had fallen out of Cox’s bed sometime that evening and sustained a minor cut.
Cox and the friends she was with on the night in question acknowledged taking shots of liquor prior to going downtown to drink more. The friends stated they were smoking marijuana that night as well. Defense lawyers told Lagniappe Cox was on prescriptions for Prozac and Vyvanse, which could have had adverse effects when mixed with other substances.
A friend of Cox contacted defense lawyers mid-trial and provided them with a video from Cox’s cell phone from January 2021 showing Cox and others taking shots of alcohol, MDMA (Ecstacy), mushrooms and marijuana before going out to party. That friend objected to the accusations against Kokali because of Cox’s use of MDMA. However, it is unclear if Cox had taken MDMA March 11.
On June 16, a jury consisting of seven women and five men handed back a not guilty decision for Kokali on all counts after just 90 minutes of deliberation.
In response to the verdict, SHC officials stated they respect the decision of the jury, but are still focused on creating a safe environment for students.
The statement read: “SHC is committed to providing students with a safe environment that is conducive to personal growth and learning. There is no place on our campus for violence of any kind. The safety of our students is of the utmost importance and we have a number of initiatives in place to prevent and address sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. We have no further comment at this time.”
Assistant District Attorney Johana Bucci said the verdict will discourage victims of sexual assault from coming forward in the future. She said the prosecutors were unable to make an air-tight case that Cox did not consent to sex with Kokali.
During her closing argument, Bucci acknowledged Cox’s history of reckless behavior but argued it was no justification for being the victim of sexual assault.
Cox did not respond to multiple interview requests. However, she did release a public statement on her social media accounts stating the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice” and that it will make it harder for abuse victims to come forward in the future.
On Instagram, she stated, “It’s not over and I’m not done fighting. I just hope this verdict doesn’t enable another rape by him. That’s all I wanted to avoid.”
‘I have zero anger with #MeToo’
In an interview with Lagniappe, Kokali said last year’s accusations derailed his life and he looks forward to getting it back on track. The Italian national said Cox’s claims led to him losing his dorm room and his job, missing the opportunity to graduate with his friends, being unable to leave the U.S. and putting him in danger of being arrested for overstaying his visa.
Kokali arrived in the U.S. in 2017 on a soccer scholarship to play for the Badgers. Kokali’s lawyers call him a “poster child” for the private Catholic school, noting he was featured on the cover of the college’s Winter 2019 alumni magazine. They also note he became fluent in English in just a few years and graduated from SHC with honors.
Kokali said he would prefer to not label his trial a “MeToo case,” because it damages the cause.
“I have zero anger with the #MeToo movement,” Kokali said. “It is a movement for a reason. Throughout history, more power has needed to be given to women, but the extremes are not good.”
From the college’s reaction to the media’s coverage, Kokali said he felt he was treated as if he was guilty from day one.
“I was very hurt how the media decided to jump to conclusions,” Kokali said. “They weren’t behaving as reporters and instead as advocates.”
He said some reporters chased him down the courthouse steps during the initial court hearings, followed him home and knocked on his door. He claims the coverage of his case leading up to the trial was not fair, either.
Despite his experience, Kokali said, he is not judging the U.S. for what happened to him. Instead, he said, he appreciates how Mobile’s court system prioritized a speedy trial process. He doubts this kind of trial would be over in 15 months anywhere else in the world.
Kokali said he would not have been able to make it through the past year without the network of friends he formed during his time here.
“That was the one thing that helped me go through everything,” he said, noting families opened up their homes to him and gave him part-time work to remain compliant with his visa.
Kokali said he knows this will follow him for the rest of his life, but he hopes to use it to help those who are falsely accused. He plans to spend time in Italy working to pay his parents back for legal fees and then return to the Mobile area to launch a career. He believes he’s missed the chance for a future in soccer. He returned to Italy with his parents on Tuesday, June 21.
Defense says pressure pushed charges
Kokali was represented by Mobile defense attorneys Megan Doggett and Domingo Soto. As a former prosecutor in Baldwin County, Doggett recognizes these types of sexual allegation cases frequently boil down to he said/she said testimony. However, she believes it was clear law enforcement and the state were treating Cox as a victim from the onset.
Doggett said actions against Kokali were prompted by large-scale attention on social media, which she accused Cox of milking for attention. As the allegations arose during an election year, she believes this put additional political pressure on Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich who had been seeking reelection at the time, and prosecutors pursued charges even before SHC completed its investigation and all the witnesses had been identified.
Doggett believes the allegations against Kokali are indicative of the unchecked dangers of the “dark side” of #MeToo. She believes Kokali’s story has a number of similarities to the recent defamation lawsuit between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. In that case, a jury ruled Heard maliciously defamed Depp in a 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post, and she could not substantiate claims made in the piece that she was a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Heard has been ordered to pay Depp $15 million.
“Women are capable of lying and manufacturing facts and false accusations,” Doggett said.
Doggett said the publicity of Cox’s allegations and her public advocacy ultimately backfired. Despite there being no discovery in criminal trials, Doggett said more than half of the evidence the defense submitted to the court was offered freely by Cox online.
Soto believes Kokali’s case was one of the most important trials he’s ever been involved in. He described Cox as someone who claimed to champion the #MeToo movement, but really is a “narcissist” who has used the movement for her own benefit.
“I feel sorry for anyone who has been victimized by a legitimate predator,” Soto said. “[Cox] and Amber Heard have set back the [#MeToo] movement.”
Soto said Kokali was lucky to have parents who could find the resources to afford a strong legal defense, noting many in his position are unable to.
Cox has launched a federal civil complaint against Kokali, SHC and college administrators for neglecting campus security and “acting indifferently” regarding claims of sexual assault. That case is still pending, but Soto said the results of the criminal trial will likely aid Kokali in his defense in the civil complaint. He said there are higher burdens of proof that must be met in criminal trials.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here