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Wrong lessons from the Duke case
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Credit:Dal Lazlo

Do women lie all the time about being raped?

That's what one detective in Madison, Wisconsin, told a legally blind woman named Patty who reported being raped by an intruder in her home in 1997. Using pressure and lies, the police got Patty to recant, then had her charged with a crime when she returned to her original account.

The consequences were tragic, not just for Patty but for the city of Madison. Patty fought the charges, which were eventually dismissed, and for nearly seven years she fought police and prosecutors who continued to insist she lied about being raped -- right up to when her rapist was convicted and sentenced to 50 years behind bars.

This case, which I covered as a newspaper reporter and is the subject of my recent book, Cry Rape, has been cited as being "the exact opposite" of the case that led to charges against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team in Durham, North Carolina.

Patty's story was discussed at length at a recent international conference on sexual assault in Houston. A former law enforcement officer has given a talk called "Duke vs. Cry Rape" to groups of other cops.

Actually, I think both cases exemplify the same dynamic: Police and prosecutors reaching conclusions based on preconceived notions and political agendas, irrespective of the facts.

In Patty's case, the Madison police department and local district attorney's office were looking for a case of false reporting to prosecute, to make an example of someone who would abuse the justice system in this way. They stuck to this theory despite mounting and ultimately overwhelming evidence that Patty had indeed been raped.

In the Duke case, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong made a public show of his prosecution of privileged college kids, launched at a critical moment during his bid for reelection. He then reportedly rebuffed repeated attempts by the players' lawyers to present evidence that poked holes in these charges.

But instead of putting the blame where it belongs -- on Nifong and the justice system's almost pathological reluctance to admit when it's wrong -- many commentators are seizing on the Duke case to allege that false reporting of sexual assaults is occurring at epidemic levels.

"Half of Rape Claims are False," screams a recent press release from a group called RADAR, which stands for Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting. The group backs up this astounding claim with a quote from Linda Fairstein, formerly a prosecutor with the sex crimes unit in New York County.

Fairstein's quote, which has been repeatedly endlessly throughout the blogosphere, holds that half of the rapes annually reported in Manhattan "did not happen." RADAR and others attribute this quote to Fairstein's 1993 book, Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape.

But Fairstein disclaims the quote: "I don't believe that and don't know where they got it." Recently, in connection with the Duke case, Fairstein said prosecutors "have to acknowledge that false accusations do happen, though they are less than 10% of reported rapes."

This quote has not found its way into RADAR's press releases.

Other claims bandied about by RADAR are similarly unreliable. The group cites studies based on absurdly small samples (109 reported rapes over nine years in a single small community), isolated and extreme cases (a woman who used false allegations to blackmail victims and who was, as a matter of fact, caught and convicted), and meaningless measures of opinion ("73% of women and 72% of men at the military service academies believe that false accusations of sexual assault are a problem").

These tidbits and anecdotes are presented to buttress this blatantly false assertion: "While researchers and prosecutors do not agree on the percentage of false allegations, the consensus is that approximately 40% to 50% of charges are clearly false."

In fact, reliable numbers from law enforcement place the incidence of false reporting for sexual assault at between 2 percent and 8 percent. The incidence of rape victims being doubted and disbelieved is a lot higher than that.

Just ask Patty.

Bill Lueders is news editor of Isthmus, a weekly newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His book, Cry Rape: The True Story of One Woman's Harrowing Quest for Justice, was published last fall by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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