Avoiding a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality in sexual assault cases


Kernel Opinion SIG

John Steinbeck had the dust bowl, Mark Twain had slavery, Ernest Hemingway had a war, and today’s writers have sexual assault.

It’s a challenging time to be a journalist, a woman and a caring citizen. Some might even say it’s a “scary” time. We are in the wake of #MeToo, a powerful viral campaign that exposed powerful sexual assaulters across our country from Harvey Weinstein to Larry Nassar. Closer to home, the Kernel has defended itself against a UK lawsuit as we battle over who to defend in sexual assault cases: the accuser or the accused.

UK updated its sexual assault guideline policies recently to allow more rights for the accused party. In our congressional district, a recent ruling would allow persons accused of sexual assault to question their accuser in court. And on Oct. 1, The Washington Post reported that Donald Trump Jr. said he is more worried for his sons than his daughters in our country and later Trump said it’s a “scary” time for young men because they are “guilty until proven innocent.”

This is a serious statement that deserves response because it suggests that the entire judicial system is undermined, due process ignored and reputation instead of evidence is believed in our most sacred courtrooms.

We believe survivors. It’s a statement that went viral and has served as the basis for many protests and campaigns across this country over Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the #MeToo movement. Does this statement indicate that if a person claims he or she was assaulted by another person, that is evidence enough for a conviction? This is what the president and his son seemed to indicate, but it is not accurate.

According to a 2016 report by the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, 23 percent of all exonerated cases in the United States from 1989 to 2012 were over sexual assault. A 2013 heartwarming story from NPR told the story of how Brian Banks, who was wrongfully charged with rape, was cleared after his accuser confessed that she lied. He served five years in prison and five years probation, being a registered sex offender and unable to work. After his exoneration, he was signed by the Atlanta Falcons and able to pursue his lifelong dream of playing football.

There have been many cases like his: men accused wrongfully of sexual assault for any number of reasons. It hurts me to think of an innocent man serving time in prison due only to another person’s personal ambitions. As tragic as this is, it does not represent a majority of the sexual assault cases in our country.

According to a 2015 USA Today story, tens of thousands of rape kits go untested each year across our country. And in 2015, more than 3,000 rape kits were untested in Kentucky alone, according to a state auditor.

For each untested rape kit, a rapist remains innocent in the eyes of the law, and if history is any indication, will stay innocent for decades and perhaps even for life. Despite the trauma a woman (or man) may endure during a rape, undergoing a rape kit is an added horror that includes pubic hair pulls, internal exams and swabs as well as having pictures taken of internal and external genital injuries. And after undergoing this no doubt humiliating exam, it may never be tested and may never amount to anything.

The assaulters do not undergo this exam.

After the violation of an assault or rape and the humiliation of a rape kit and the victimization family and friends place on a person who’s gone through this, he or she now has to stand in court and, in some cases, tell the entire world about the most vulnerable moments of their life.

So yes, we believe survivors. I believe survivors. Statistically, it is far more likely that if a person says she was assaulted that she’s telling the truth.

I also recognize that not everyone who testifies is a survivor, as in the few cases we discussed earlier. This is where due process comes in.

It is barbaric at best to have a balance of power tucked away in the “he said, she said” age-old debate. More weight has been granted male voices for centuries, and we cannot afford to lean too far in the other direction. We must reserve judgement until we hear both sides. We must not let one person’s word hold more weight over another’s. Evidence, not emotions, should guide us.

Everyone should always be innocent until proven guilty, and we owe them that right. In the majority of cases, they get that right. In most sexual assault cases, the guilty party never suffers any inconvenience thanks to the humiliation and fear the victim faces if she or he comes forward.

Having said that, we should listen to both sides and be moved by evidence rather than emotion, and we should take sexual assault allegations very seriously. Nothing could be more detrimental than the violation of a person’s humanity.

Believe survivors, but listen to both sides first.