Skip to main content

Should false rape accusers be sued?

By Roxanne Jones
updated 7:52 AM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
Roxanne Jones says men who find themselves falsely accused of rape are turning to suing their accusers in civil court.
Roxanne Jones says men who find themselves falsely accused of rape are turning to suing their accusers in civil court.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones: 2% to 8% of rape accusations are "unfounded"
  • Jones: Some men who insist they've been falsely accused are suing accusers in civil court
  • Jones asks if Jameis Winston is innocent, shouldn't he sue his accuser to prove it?
  • It's more complicated than that, she says. You can't win, it could end in a backlash

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- Eighty years -- that's about how long it took the state of Alabama to posthumously pardon the last three of nine men who were falsely accused and wrongly convicted of raping two white women on a train. They infamously were called the Scottsboro Boys, because the nine black men were just 12- to 19-years-old when they were arrested in 1931.

It turned out that the women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, had lied to police about the rapes. At one of the trials, Bates recanted her testimony, saying she had made it all up. Still, the all-white jury convicted the boys, one after another.

Forty-three years later, a similar story: This time it was Delbert Tibbs, who died recently of cancer. Tibbs spent nearly three years in prison in Florida after he was convicted in 1974 of a rape and murder that he had nothing to do with, according to the Florida Supreme Court.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

Ancient history, you say? We've moved past those shameful days of unequal justice, you insist. Think again.

In 2012, according to the FBI, nearly 87,000 "forcible rapes" were reported. That's down 7% from the number of rapes reported in 2008. Law enforcement agencies estimate that the number of false rape accusations ranges from 2% to 8% annually, or between 2,000 and 7,000 cases each year.

Exact numbers are difficult to track because of the lack of in-depth research on false rape cases and because of the varying definitions of what constitutes an "unfounded" rape claim. It can mean the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect or suffer injuries, was not threatened with a weapon or the victim and perpetrator had a previous relationship.

Law enforcement experts agree that rapes are widely underreported, and no one is suggesting that violence against women isn't a serious problem. But experts do not dispute that false rape accusations can and do happen. Many of those innocent men end up in prison or with lives shattered.

One of the unfortunate statistics

In 2002, Brian Banks was one of those unfortunate statistics. He was just 17 when a classmate, Wanetta Gibson, 15, falsely accused him of raping her at school. Banks, then a top football talent, spent more than five years in prison and five years on probation for rape and kidnapping.

No rape charge for FSU's Jameis Winston
And the Heisman trophy goes to ...

He was exonerated after he got his accuser to admit on tape that she lied about the rape. Banks later explained that his attorney had advised him to take a plea bargain and avoid a jury trial because "... I was a big black teenager, and no jury would believe anything I said."

The Long Beach Unified School District sued his accuser, and she has been ordered to repay the $750,000 she was awarded in a lawsuit against the district.

It seems more men who insist they have been falsely accused of rape are trying a new tactic: suing their accusers in civil court, mostly for defamation. They are seeking to repair their ruined lives, save their careers and clear their names. Make no mistake, I could never defend men who rape and believe even harsher penalties are needed for rapists. But I can understand why some men are opting to fight back. And I even agree with this strategy in some cases.

TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is fighting back. Arrington is suing his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Allen, after she accused him in 2012 on Facebook and Twitter posts of physically abusing her and raping one of her friends (who later denied this). The case is pending.

Recently, it sounded as if Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who was accused of raping a fellow student, and his legal team were also considering this strategy. His attorney, Tim Jansen, said that they have not ruled out a civil suit of their own.

"His reputation is important to him," Jansen said after his client was cleared when the state attorney said no charges would be filed. "His career is important to him."

The accuser's attorney has requested a review of the case by the Florida attorney general's office and argues that the Tallahassee Police Department tried to stymie the rape investigation of the star athlete.

Throughout the investigation, Winston insisted that the sex was consensual. And his unidentified accuser equally insisted she was raped but was heavily intoxicated and had a "broken memory" of events. However, toxicology reports found no drugs in her system and very low alcohol levels. Complicating the case further, Winston's DNA was found on the woman's underwear and a second DNA sample, reportedly from her boyfriend, was found on her shorts.

No simple solution to clearing your name

Admittedly, my initial reaction to hearing no charges would be filed was relief. For me, the case was troubling on both sides. And though I'm no lawyer, I thought: "Winston should sue his accuser. If he's really innocent, he should prove it and clear his name."

But it may not be that simple. Xavier Donaldson, a defense attorney and former assistant district attorney in New York, warns that while initiating these lawsuits against accusers may seem like a good way for men who are wrongly accused to get justice, he'd be hard-pressed to advise any of his clients to pursue this strategy.

"It's a very sensitive issue, and these suits should be extremely case specific, extremely rare. ... You can't win these cases, too much backlash," Donaldson said.

His advice to Winston: "Move on with your life, remain above the scandal, and focus on school and following your dream to play in the NFL."

I asked Donaldson what about the thousands of men who are wrongly accused -- just ignore them?

"Look, I tell my clients innocent before proven guilty is not reality. It's more of a marketing slogan to promote faith in our justice system; without that premise, the system would fall apart," he said. He also said it could "discourage too many from reporting real rapes."

It sounds to me like ancient history repeating itself. It sounds to me like we have a very long way to go before there's justice for all.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT