The Corner

Law & the Courts

Another Sexual-Assault Acquittal Reaffirms the Need to #BelieveEvidence

Texas Longhorns quarterback Tyrone Swoopes (18) eludes the rush of Baylor Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman (2) at McLane Stadium, Waco, Texas, Dec. 5, 2015. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

Yesterday a Texas jury found former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman not guilty of sexual assault. As my Tennessee neighbor Clay Travis notes, the charges against Oakman were heavily publicized, and carried serious repercussions for the Baylor football program:

As Clay also points out, Oakman is hardly the only high-profile NFL prospect recently acquitted. Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson (and his teammate Michael Williams) were found not guilty after a mere 90 minutes of deliberations last summer.

At this point, how many more court cases do we need before we return to sanity and reason in the battle over campus sexual assault? As I wrote last month, judges across the country (including, most notably, California judges) are rebuking colleges and universities for establishing campus kangaroo courts designed to secure more punishments for young men. And now we’re seeing real courts demonstrate once again the power of due process.

No one doubts that terrible crimes occur on and off campus. In 2016 and 2017, for example, Tennessee juries convicted three former Vanderbilt football players of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman — and that’s just one terrible incident. There are many more. But the debate has never been about whether men commit rape. The public controversy has been about whether there is something special about sex crimes that should cause us (on college campuses) to suspend normal rules of due process and (in the court of public opinion) believe sexual-misconduct claims virtually by default.

Using bogus statistics — for example, the claim that only between 2 and 10 percent of women lie about rape — activists have persuaded millions of Americans that the accused does not deserve the benefit of any doubt. As I wrote last year, this statistic is fatally flawed:

Anyone who tells you that we can statistically peg the number of “false” rape claims is peddling a fatally flawed statistic. There’s a simple reason why: Our system does not adjudicate whether a claim is true or false. It adjudicates burdens of proof. Yes, there are some rare instances where an accuser recants, DNA evidence totally exonerates, or a defendant can decisively prove he is innocent, but those cases represent a small fraction of the whole.

If a prosecutor declines to pursue a case, does that mean the alleged victim filed a proven false claim? Very rarely. Instead, it usually means that the prosecutor doesn’t believe he can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If a judge tosses a sexual-harassment lawsuit at summary judgment — or if a civil jury rules against a sexual-harassment plaintiff — does that mean she filed a proven false claim? Very rarely. It instead means that the judge found the allegations insufficient as a matter of law or that the jury found they were not supported by adequate evidence. (Emphasis added.)

For example, in one of the key studies used to proclaim that women rarely lie about rape, the researchers found that 5.9 percent of claims were false and that a whopping 44.9 percent were classified as “case did not proceed.” And what was a prime reason why those cases did not proceed? Lack of evidence.

Women who come forward to report crimes should be treated with dignity and respect. Their voices should be heard. And then their accusations should be tested with the same rigor that we apply to all other claims of criminal wrongdoing. Unless we do so, we risk creating yet another class of victims — the class of the falsely accused. After all, as Shawn Oakman demonstrates, the human costs of the allegation aren’t borne by the accuser alone:

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