Politics & Policy

How a False Domestic-Violence Charge Ruined An NBA Career

Forget due process, evidence, rights — domestic-violence accusers are almost always believed.

A startling report last week by the AP’s Jon Krawczynski sheds needed light on the harrowing story of Dante Cunningham, a victim of a false domestic-violence accusation and a baseless restraining order.

Last season, Cunningham was a forward playing for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, completing his second year with the team. A tall (6′8″), willowy man with a kind face and a broad smile, Cunningham was raised in a military family in Maryland, where he developed the work ethic and grounded nature that helped propel his successful basketball career. As a college student at Villanova, he was the team’s top scorer. He was then drafted into the NBA, where he played for five years and led a relatively quiet life — a dog lover who was well liked by the fans for his cheerful disposition and generosity.  

But Cunningham’s life changed in an instant one night in April when his girlfriend, a single mother he’d been dating for months, accused the 26-year-old NBA player of domestic violence. As Krawczynski reports:

It was after 4 a.m. when Dante Cunningham pulled his truck back into the driveway of his suburban Minneapolis home and saw the police waiting for him.

Officers put the handcuffs on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ reserve as soon as his feet hit the pavement. The reality of his situation and the domestic assault charges that were on their way didn’t really sink in until he was lying in a jail cell and the lights went out.

“The whole time I was like, ‘I’m OK. I’m out of here. Things will be fine,’” Cunningham recalled. “Then it went dark and I was like, ‘This is not a joke. I’m really in this.’”

The woman claimed Cunningham had kicked down a locked bedroom door, pushed her against the wall, and choked her. He strenuously denied the charges, stating that the only time he touched her was on her wrist, when he tried to get her to stop hanging onto his vehicle as he drove away from their residence to cool down following an argument.

But Cunningham’s version of events did not matter — only the accuser’s. He was arrested on sight.

The girlfriend obtained a restraining order (which, in recent years, have become shockingly easy to obtain, thanks to a feminism-fueled legal netherworld where little to no evidence is required and the accused’s rights are almost non-existent). Cunningham must have thought the worst that could happen already had happened — arrested and booked on domestic-violence charges. But no: He was released from jail pending trial, and then, only three days later, he was arrested again. The reason? According to the accuser, he had violated the restraining order, allegedly having called her from his hotel room and sending her Skype messages harassing and threatening her, including one that allegedly stated: “ur dead mark my words dead.” Cunningham denied contacting her. Again, his denial — and his rights — did not matter. 

In the blink of an eye, Dante Cunningham’s world was turned upside down. He was now branded with the “domestic-violence offender” label, despite the lack of any evidence, something with which the court of public opinion can never be bothered. Cunningham, previously loved and appreciated by fans, was now even booed at games. Nationwide, few bothered to consider that the charges might be untrue, as the comments below this ESPN report, for instance, demonstrate.

Cunningham’s contract with the Timberwolves was not renewed.

After four agonizing months, however, in August, the Hennepin County authorities announced they were dropping the charges, citing a lack of any reasonable proof he committed a crime.

But the devil is in the chilling details: the charges were dropped not for lack of evidence — but because the accuser seems to have made it all up.

(a) Those messages Cunningham allegedly sent, violating the restraining order? The accuser sent them herself, in order to frame him for breaching the restraining order. As Krawczynski writes:

According to the police report obtained by the AP, phone records from Cunningham’s hotel room show that no outgoing calls were made the night he was there and surveillance cameras indicate he never left his room until police arrived to arrest him. An investigation of the IP address for the device that sent the threatening messages found that the messages were sent from a device inside [the accuser’s] home, not Cunningham’s phone.

“Evidence does not show that Cunningham sent the messages and in fact, it appears [the accuser] sent the messages to herself in an attempt to frame Cunningham,” Medina Police Officer Charmane Domino wrote.

(b) The locked bedroom door she claimed Cunningham kicked down in a rage — which he claimed was actually a door he was forced to pry open days earlier, because he’d locked himself out? Cunningham was telling the truth:

Police filings also show they had an audio recording of [the accuser] speaking to a friend of Cunningham’s in which she says she knew Cunningham had kicked in the door a week earlier.

If you’re wondering whether authorities will charge this woman with perjury, think again. Forged documents, false allegations, and defamatory lies in police reports or restraining-order petitions are met with a shrug. The county attorney refused to charge Cunningham’s accuser with making a false police report, telling the AP he was reluctant to bring those charges for fear of “a chilling effect” such an action might have on future victims of domestic violence.

Apparently, there is no fear of the actual chilling effect a false allegation has on its victim’s life — only a fear of the possible chilling effect it may or may not have on other accusers.

As for Dante Cunningham, he has been cleared of wrongdoing thanks to the fortuitous, technical evidence tracing the acts to the accuser. But at what cost? The stigma will, regardless, follow him the rest of his life. And his career, despite his proven innocence, is arguably destroyed. As Krawczynski reports:

The investigation lasted late into the summer, long after the prime signing period for free agents. As dependable as Cunningham is on the court, he’s not the kind of game-changing talent that could prompt a team to look past the incident to sign him. . . .

Two executives with NBA teams told the AP the domestic violence charge was not a deal-breaker for their teams to consider Cunningham, but it definitely made it more difficult to bring him in. . . .

Cunningham’s agent, Joel Bell, estimates Cunningham could have landed a deal paying him more than $4 million per season were it not for the charge. He said he was told as recently as Monday by one team that it couldn’t risk the public relations trouble that could come from signing him.

In August, Bell announced Cunningham’s plan to bring civil charges against the accuser, “not only to clear his name but to show people it’s wrong to abuse an already overworked legal system.” Bell added: “Dante is outraged that the taxpayers of Hennepin County had to pay for countless hours of attorney and police time because somebody made a false claim for their own personal interest.” It is unclear, however, whether Cunningham still plans to bring charges.

In short, a system that rushes to believe domestic-violence accusers provides a surefire way to ruin someone’s reputation and livelihood, to cause unimaginable emotional harm, and — best of all! — the government will do most of the heavy lifting for the accuser. Filing false accusations, with fraudulent claims, even framing the accused? No problem — feel free. Defamation suits arising from false statements made in police reports or court documents are typically unrecognized by the courts, and no D.A. will bother with a perjury charge stemming from a small case, much less against a domestic-violence accuser.

One would think the Left, so-called champions of civil liberties, would be disturbed by the trampling — or outright non-existence — of due process in these cases. Or, from an alternative angle, one would think the Left would be concerned that the men victimized by false domestic-violence or rape charges are often black males (see, e.g., Brian Banks, Treon Harris, and Dante Cunningham). But the Left is not. In the rock-paper-scissors tournament of modern-day liberalism, pushing the notion of domestic violence as an epidemic trumps both civil liberties and racial-disparity concerns. The Left has gone all in on domestic violence — with authorities playing along — and innocent Americans are paying the price.

While those who implement these ridiculous processes, enabling the wholesale destruction of lives and rights, enjoy their dinner parties, Dante Cunningham sits alone in his motor home, jobless, with his dog for company, likely wondering how on earth our legal system ever came to this.

And I, a lawyer, sadly have no answer for him.

— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.


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