Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Power of False Accusations

In this Sunday’s Washington Post, reporter Tom Jackman relayed the horrific tale of what happened to Sean Lanigan, a teacher in the Fairfax County Public School System. A 12-year-old girl in one of his classes falsely accused Lanigan of sexual misconduct, and his life has never been the same.

The affair read as an almost textbook case of a false accusation. The girl, who appears to have serious emotional problems, had troubles with Lanigan before the allegation. (She had bullied students, and Lanigan had called her on it.) She made the charge—resulting in Lanigan’s arrest—without the lead detective, Nicole Christian, ever interviewing her. Nor did the police determine whether her claims were even physically possible. The story that produced Lanigan’s arrest involved a claim of sexual misconduct on tumbling mats in the equipment room, but Jackman reports that “several witnesses said the tumbling mats couldn’t even fit in the equipment room.”

The girl at least partially recanted her tall tale on facebook, and at a preliminary hearing, but the prosecutors decided to go forward anyway. After the state presented a case that could charitably be described as lacking in evidence, jurors acquitted Lanigan in 47 minutes; one of the jurors was crying in outrage that the case had been allowed to proceed. Jackman portrays Detective Christian as a latter-day Inspector Javert—and also points out that, in a highly unusual move, the local prosecutor chose to dismiss another case that she investigated as it was going to trial.

Yet despite the acquittal, the Fairfax schools have treated Lanigan as if he were guilty. The school district couldn’t fire him, but it did prevent him from returning to his old school, and in the 2010-11 academic year, he was only allowed to teach half-time. Administrators drew up a lengthy behavior contract for him, seemingly based on an assumption that the girl’s allegations had some merit. And the school district has thus far refused to pay his $125,000 legal expenses, even though Virginia law allows public employees who are falsely accused on the job to have the state cover their attorneys’ fees.

Apart from the obvious—that a false allegation of sexual assault, once made, can never truly be undone—what’s the relevance of the Lanigan case to the lacrosse case? In a column yesterday, Jackman commented on the Post’s refusal to identify the false accuser. The decision seemed eminently reasonable: the United States has a long tradition of sealing juvenile records, and the idea of identifying a minor would seem consistent with this philosophy.

But then Jackman broadened his comment, to examine the issue of the media identifying adults who level unsubstantiated allegations of sexual assault. Here’s what he had to say:

This issue has long been batted around in journalism, most recently in the case of the woman who accused the Duke University lacrosse players of raping her. Even after the case against the players was dropped, the mainstream media mostly did not name her. She came to prominence as a sex crimes victim, the media automatically protects such victims’ anonymity, and just because suspects weren’t convicted (for a variety of reasons) doesn’t always mean the crime didn’t happen.

[Then the Duke accuser, Crystal Mangum, was arrested recently for murder, and all bets were off.]

This passage is highly problematic, for three reasons.

First, it inaccurately relates how the media handled identifying Mangum. It’s quite true that the two newspapers whose pro-Nifong handling of the case was widely discredited—the Herald-Sun and the New York Times—declined to identify Mangum after the attorney general exonerated the players. But, of course, the N&O, leading paper in the Triangle (and on the case itself) immediately identified Mangum after the exoneration. So too did the New York Post, in a front-page photo and story. So too did local TV stations. So too did at least some newspapers that carried the AP.

Second, the passage illuminates the illogical nature of the media’s generally refusing to name false (adult) accusers. Victims’ rights advocates contend that naming sexual assault accusers will discourage real victims from coming forward. Even assuming that the media should withhold information to accommodate the assertions of victims’ rights advocates, it would seem that their argument would demand that all newspapers publish the names of false accusers. After all, if publicizing names will discourage people from coming forward, shouldn’t everyone want to discourage false accusers from making their false claims?

Third, and by far the most important, is Jackman’s assertion—in a clause bracketed by explicit reference to Crystal Mangum—that “just because suspects weren’t convicted (for a variety of reasons) doesn’t always mean the crime didn’t happen.” It’s the height of irony to see a reporter who sensitively and comprehensively relayed the story of a false accusation’s poisonous effects toss in a line that suggests—without any evidence to back it up—that maybe, just maybe, the attorney general’s report was wrong, and that what was publicly revealed about the Duke case doesn’t “mean the crime didn’t happen.”

It seems that, despite the best efforts of so many people, the meme of “something happened” persists.


On another note entirely: I have a piece up at MTC on how two faculty members at the UVA Law School responded to a politically correct false accusation. Upholding due process was not first on their minds.


Anonymous said...

On the same day, April 4, Vice President Joe Biden kicked off a nationwide “awareness campaign” on schools’ obligations toward victims in a speech at the University of New Hampshire. But will this campaign truly help victims of sexual assault – or is it likely to trample on the civil rights of students accused of such offenses, and promote more panic and paranoia on campuses?

Anonymous said...

Until false accusers -- and Hoax-ters -- are held to account for their actions, these fiascos will never end.

Anonymous said...

The readers at the "false rape society" want to thank you sir for yer bold efforts to protect the innocent.

Anonymous said...

Another concern is what society needs to do about law enforcement and prosecutors ruining an innocent mans life over an accusation of rape that any simpleton could see was a lie.
Some prosecutors like Mary Kellet are prosecuting the innocent for political gains.

Anonymous said...

KC-- you have identified Linwood Wilson, who is obviously a victim of domestic violence.

Has it yet been determined if Linwood could fit into that bathroom in question?

Chris Halkides said...


Well said, and I do not disagree with any of your points. What could Mr. Jackman possibly be thinking? I would, however, point out that not all false accusations are the result of vindictiveness (presumably in the Lanigan case) or possible mental instability. Some are the result of police coercion, of one sort or another. Several of the witnesses in the Troy Davis case in Georgia have recanted and claimed that they felt frightened and pressured. Canadians David Milgaard and Donald Marshall, Jr. were both imprisoned partly on the basis of false statements made under pressure. I do not yet have a position on whether or not it is ethical to name accusing witnesses in these situations, but the issue does not look simple upon first consideration.

Anonymous said...

I have read that Nicole Chris­tian, lead detective on the Sean Lanigan case behaved in a Nifong-like manner, refusing to listen to exculpatory evidence, threatening to arrest people with exculpatory information for obstruction of justice. Her department is not allowing her to be interviewed.

I hope Mr. Lanigan files a civil suit, against the parents of the false accuser, the school system, the police and specifically Detective Nicole Chris­tian.

Anonymous said...

"But when others – staff, parents – tried to tell Christian anything she didn’t want to hear, she threatened them with prosecution for obstruction of justice, the staff members and parents said."

This is a quote from Sean Lanigan: The rest of the story (Vol. 1), url http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-state-of-nova/post/sean-lanigan-the-rest-of-the-story-vol-1/2011/05/16/AFUlpc4G_blog.html

William L. Anderson said...

Good commentary, K.C. This is so typical of the mainstream media in these cases. Even when they get it right, they STILL don't get it right.

I had the following on this case:

The problem is that Jackman depends upon these very people for his stories and his information sources, so he has try to make them look as though they are good people who made a mistake as opposed to people who don't care if someone is guilty or innocent. They just want to get a conviction at all costs. They might not be as personally loathsome as Mike Nifong, but they pretty much are cut from the same professional cloth.

Anonymous said...

Funny how Jackman writes a whole article about a man falsly accused, and then goes around and takes it for granted that Mangum was "fair game" as soon as she was accused of a crime.
Why does the media not protect the identity of people accused of a crime? After all, as we have repeatedly learned, not all accusations are true.

Anonymous said...

People are being tried by the press and school administrations.
The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right...to be confronted with the witnesses against him." I believe it is also a moral obligation on a society.

jim2 said...

This article is on point:


Anonymous said...

What will happen next inFairfax County?

Will they appoint Mike Nifong their next DA after wangling to get him a VA law license.

Will they appoint Wendy Murphy to investigate sex crimes in the county?

Will they appoint such worthies as Mark Gottlieb or Ben Himan to the county police force?

Will they appoint Linwood Wilson a special county investigator?

Anonymous said...

Crystal Mangum charged with a felony. Again. Duke Lacrosse in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Again.

Jay Knott said...

There is one type of alleged crime where a man can justifiably denied employment even after acquittal - an alleged crime against a minor. If someone is acquitted of such an offense, adults are obliged to treat him as if nothing happened. But we wouldn't let him teach our children. It's a trade-off - we trade justice for safety.

This is not like the Duke case at all.

Anonymous said...

What I haven't heard or read is whether the Virginia State Bar will disbar the prosecutor. And why hasn't the parents made the girl publicly apologize to Mr. Lanigan.

I have read on different blogs that he asked for this treatment because he flipped students off his shoulder. It has been a long time since high school but I can remember my PE teachers giving me hugs when I performed some stunt on the mat or the uneven bars. I can remember my PE teacher grabbing my waist and giving me a boost to the highest parrallel bar. Since when has participating in team sports or clowning around with the kids meant "intimate" contact?

Even if he never gave her flips, I seriously doubt this girl, who knew the difference of right and wrong, would have changed her story. The truth of the matter is that she is a trouble-maker. If the principal and the social worker had talked to other teachers and students, then they would have know from the very start that she was lying. I have also read that if he had been in the union, his name would have been cleared. My question, since when does a teacher have to join an union to have his civil rights protected?

And will his lawyer sue in federal court for civil rights violations?

Anonymous said...

Here's another example that has many disturbing parallels to the Duke LAX case: http://larrybrownsports.com/baseball/baylor-player-reportedly-refused-to-shake-garrett-wittels-hand/70874

jim2 said...

Here's still another case on point:


Anonymous said...

It was a harrowing account of false accusation. Sad he had to live that nightmare. That said, I don't want *any* PE teacher picking up my 12 year old daughter on/over his shoulder, playfully or not.