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October 3, 2018

What the Innocence Project Can Teach Us About Sexual Assault Allegations

  The Hill

A narrative has emerged over the past few years that women alleging sexual assault must be believed. That narrative took on heightened visibility in the wake of the sexual assault allegations of Christine Blasey Ford and the denials from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

It is imperative that all sexual assault allegations be taken seriously and investigated appropriately — something that has not always been the case.

But the Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992, has demonstrated through DNA testing that there are numerous cases of men sent to jail because they were wrongly convicted of sexual assault.

The organization boasts of 362 DNA exonerees to date, people who spent years, and in many cases decades, behind bars because they were convicted of a crime — murder, rape, assault, etc. — they did not commit.

Moreover, the organization’s efforts using DNA to clear innocent people have helped identify 158 real perpetrators, who were later “convicted of 150 additional violent crimes, including 80 sexual assaults,” according to the Innocence Project.

In news reports of those cases in which men were wrongly convicted of sexual assault, including rape, the victim identified the accused. Indeed the Innocence Project claims, “Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 70% of the more than 350 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.”

Consider the kidnapping and rape conviction of VanDyke Perry and Gregory Counts. The victim, who knew both men, claimed they forced her into a car at knifepoint and raped her multiple times. The victim had semen in her underwear, which she claimed was theirs.

The men were convicted based solely on the victim’s eyewitness testimony. There was no physical evidence presented at the trial, according to news accounts.

Counts was released last year after 26 years in jail, thanks to the efforts of Innocence Project.

The release came after the organization provided DNA testing that revealed the semen belonged to the accuser’s boyfriend. After other elements of her story fell apart, the accuser finally admitted that she contrived the story.

Then there is the case of Malcolm Alexander of Louisiana, who was released last January. He spent nearly four decades behind bars, accused and convicted of a 1978 rape. Although he always maintained his innocence, the victim identified him — said she was 98 percent sure, according to news reports. Recent DNA tests proved otherwise.

The Ohio Innocence Project took on the case of Christopher Miller in 2015. He was convicted of rape in 2002 and imprisoned. Miller was arrested because he had the victim’s cell phone, which he said he exchanged the day before for some drugs. Although the victim identified him as one of two rapists, he maintained his innocence. DNA evidence eventually identified the two guilty men and Miller was released last June.

Or consider the case of Perry Lott of Oklahoma, who was released last July after more than 30 years behind bars for rape. The victim identified him, but DNA evidence excluded him from the scene.

These examples are not meant to question Ford’s testimony, which was compelling and heart-wrenching.

Rather, the examples challenge the narrative that a sex-assault victim is always telling the truth and cannot be mistaken about the culprit.

Misidentifying an alleged perpetrator of a sexual assault crime is rare — with the majority of those cases involving a stranger to the victim. Knowingly accusing someone falsely is even more rare, but it does happen.

That’s why even when a very credible victim raises a strong allegation, some type of evidence is needed. Mistakes happen. Just ask the hundreds of wrongly convicted people freed by the Innocence Project.

Dr. Merrill Matthews serves on the Texas Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Institute for Policy Innovation is a member of the Right On Crime initiative.


 

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