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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT