False premises and shoddy studies can do terrible damage. The false premise is that frivolous accusations of rape and sexual assault are vanishingly rare. The shoddy studies include those that purport to discover “true” rates of crime through anonymous surveys that are often filled with vague and imprecise definitions of criminal conduct. Combine the two, and you have a nightmare.
College campuses represent the obvious example. The #BelieveAllWomen ideology matched with absurd statistics like the assertion that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during college resulted in a campus Kangaroo court system that’s collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence.
In fact, a troubling number of the high-profile cases that motivated the crisis mentality proved to be highly problematic. The Rolling Stone story about a fictional attack in Virginia is the most famous, but other high profile cases, like the “mattress girl” incident at Columbia and even some of the cases featured in the campus-rape documentary “The Hunting Ground,” were far less credible than they first appeared.
And now that’s true of yet another case, this one in the military. Today the Washington Post reported on a significant jury verdict in Virginia. Retired Army colonel David “Wil” Riggins won a multimillion-dollar verdict against a woman who accused him of raping her, years before, when they were both cadets at West Point. The accuser, Susan Shannon, wrote a blog post accusing the colonel of raping her when she was drunk on campus in 1986 — just as Riggins was recommended for promotion to brigadier general.
The Army Criminal Investigative Division found that it couldn’t “prove or disprove” (an odd standard; it’s not normally the role of investigators to “disprove”) the accuser’s story, but the Secretary of the Army condemned Riggins’s character anyway and recommended that he be removed from the promotion list. Riggins retired. The Post tells what happened next:
Then, Riggins sued Shannon for defamation, claiming that every aspect of her rape claim on the West Point campus was “provably false,” and that she wrote two blog posts and a Facebook post “to intentionally derail [his] promotion” to brigadier general. During a six-day trial that ended Aug. 1, a jury in Fairfax County, Va., heard from both Riggins and Shannon at length. And after 2½ hours of deliberation, they sided emphatically with Riggins, awarding him $8.4 million in damages, an extraordinary amount for a defamation case between two private citizens. The jury ordered Shannon to pay $3.4 million in compensatory damages for injury to his reputation and lost wages, and $5 million in punitive damages, “to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again,” according to one of the jurors.
That’s a strong statement and yet another reminder (as if we needed more) that sloganeering and ideology are poor substitutes for facts and evidence. Accusers in sexual crimes are not by default more believable than accusers in other crimes, and there is no need to bypass the court system, deprive the accused of due process, or (in the case of the military) undermine command authority under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to grant them special power over the accused.