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.