Accused often guilty until proven innocent

Published On:
Thursday, September 24, 2009
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Danmell Ndonye, a freshman at Hofstra University in New York, made the news last week after she accused five men of tying her up and taking turns sexually assaulting her in the bathroom stall of a campus dorm.

Police acted quickly and arrested four of the accused rapists soon after Ndonye reported the crime. They spent the next 22 hours in jail while the media broadcast their names and faces across the country. The men were only released when the fifth suspect showed police video of the rendezvous that proved Ndonye had lied and the sex was consensual.

Confronted with the truth, Ndonye recanted her story and confessed to police she had made it up because she had been afraid to tell her boyfriend about the illicit encounter.

If the story sounds familiar, it should. It’s eerily reminiscent of the controversy that erupted in March 2006 when a stripper hired to dance at a party for the Duke University lacrosse team falsely accused several men on the team of raping her. Due to a lack of any corroborative evidence, investigators eventually dropped all charges against the players, though over a year after they were first accused and long after state prosecutors and media personalities had done irreparable damage to their reputations.

When it comes to crimes of sexual assault, we seem to always be in a rush to accuse and condemn the alleged perpetrators. Faced with such heinous crimes, we disregard the judicial process, favoring the rights of the victim and ignoring the rights of the accused.

Several studies show that the problem of false reports of rape may be greater than we realize:

A review of 556 rape accusations filed against Air Force personnel found that 27 percent of women later recanted.

According to a 1996 Department of Justice report, “in about 25 percent of the sexual assault cases referred to the FBI ... the primary suspect has been excluded by forensic DNA testing.”

In a nine-year study of 109 rapes reported to the police in a Midwestern city, Purdue sociologist Eugene J. Kanin reported that in 41 percent of the cases the complainants eventually admitted that no rape had occurred. In a follow-up study of rape claims filed over a three-year period at two large Midwestern universities, Kanin found that of 64 rape cases, 50 percent turned out to be false.

When the mere accusation of sexual assault can ruin a life, these numbers are frightening.

This controversy isn’t about men versus women, he said/she said. It’s about truth. The men Ndonye accused of rape were in jail for nearly a day before they were released. If not for video evidence, they may have spent 25 years in prison for first-degree rape.

They were proven innocent, but the damage to their reputations has already been done.

“Anytime anyone Googles my name, rape is going to be right there beside it. My name is forever tarnished,” one of the five men accused by Ndonye said in a recent New York Post article.

If women feel they’ve been sexually assaulted, they should report it to the police. Always. But they should never make a false accusation and ruin someone’s life simply because they’ve done something they regret.

Meanwhile, the rest of us should be more careful about condemning the accused before they have a chance to prove themselves innocent. Guilty or not, that’s their right.

Reach Zachary at zachary.fowle@asu.edu.