In September 2018 a University of Kansas student met with police officers outside Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
She explained to an officer that she had been raped the day before. The details, however, were blurry because she was drunk at the time, she said, according to court documents.
Worried about what reporting a rape could mean for her career, she told officers she did not want to press charges. But she allowed them to look through her phone before going inside for a rape examination.
Lawrence police detectives decided the student was lying and, without telling her, investigated her rather than the alleged rapist, according to motions filed by the woman’s attorney in Douglas County District Court.
Five months later she was arrested and charged with falsely reporting a felony crime.
According to a 2009 University of Massachusetts study, about two to eight percent of rapes reported are false.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson says this is one of them.
“The State believes the evidence shows the Defendant fabricated the rape story to effect the relationship between herself and the victim ... and her ex-boyfriend,” Branson said in a statement.
“The State believes the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, including: the testimony of (the victim), (her ex-boyfriend), law enforcement officers, and evidence collected by law enforcement, specifically, text messages from the Defendant to her friend …indicate the sexual encounter … was consensual.”
The woman’s attorneys, Cheryl Pilate and Branden Bell, said the state’s witnesses in the hearing weren’t telling the truth.
“Our client is innocent. She did not make false statements to police,” they said in a statement.
“At a preliminary hearing, the court must assume that the State’s witnesses are telling the truth. We look forward to showing a jury that they are not.”
The woman’s legal fees are now being covered in part by the Times Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization founded by celebrities during the Me Too movement.
The Star generally does not name possible victims of sexual assault without their permission. The Star also generally does not name people accused of sexual assault unless they are charged.
The facts are detailed in the affidavit supporting the woman’s arrest and in motions filed by her attorney to have the case dismissed.
According to court documents filed by Pilate:
The student woke up on a Friday morning in September 2018 feeling like she had sex. She found herself in the bed of the best friend of her on-again, off-again boyfriend.
She had been drinking the night before and had no idea how she got to his apartment. She also had bruises on her legs, neck and arms that she couldn’t explain according to her attorneys.
When she got home later that day, she texted a friend and said she had sex with the man whose bed she woke up in.
She joked about the incident, unable at the time to admit she had been raped.
She didn’t admit it until the next day when an acquaintance threatened to tell people about the incident.
She sent a text message to the acquaintance saying: “I’m pretty sure it was borderline rape and I have the bruises and statements to prove it so if you want to go there let’s do it,” according to the affidavit prepared by the Lawrence Police Department.
At that point, according to her attorney’s motions, the woman’s memories of the night had begun to come back.
Sixteen minutes after sending the text message, she was meeting with police, according to the affidavit.
She told police she remembered telling the man she wanted to leave, and she remembered the man telling her she couldn’t leave.
She remembered waking up naked in his bed while he was having sex with her, and him holding her down after she told him “no.”
She said she remembered waking up again to him still having sex with her and pushing him off of her before she blacked out again.
“Our client did not ‘fabricate’ the bruises on her arms, on her legs, and on her neck. Our client did not ‘fabricate’ the results of her examination, which revealed her additional, sensitive injuries. And our client did not ‘fabricate’ her assailant’s statement, minutes before the assault, that he planned to ‘f*ck” her just to prove that he could,’ said her attorneys in a written statement.
When the student spoke with police, according to court documents, she gave them her phone to review and told them she did not want to make a formal report.
She additionally told officials at Lawrence Memorial Hospital that she did not want her sexual assault examination kit turned over to law enforcement.
The kit was not tested by law enforcement and the Douglas County District Attorney’s office told The Star they had no information about the kit.
Upon review of her phone officers discovered the texts she sent to her friend that made light of the incident and seemed to suggest the encounter was consensual and “just a mistake on her part,” according to the affidavit.
When the student was asked about those messages she said she was simply trying to “downplay” the situation at the time.
Weeks later, she met with officials at KU’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access, which handles Title IX complaints.
After the meeting, the student decided she wanted to make a statement to police and KU officials.
She called the Lawrence Police Department to ask officers to come to another meeting and said she was considering pursuing charges.
Following this call, according to court documents, Lawrence police informed KU about their doubts about the student’s case and began speaking to her alleged rapist and other witnesses.
Patrick Compton, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman, said the department regularly shares information with the university office.
When the woman learned the department was interviewing witnesses, she canceled the meeting with police and the university. She called the department to remind police she did not want to press charges.
Compton said police have the latitude to determine whether to proceed with a case even if the reporting party declines to press charges.
“If during the investigation the alleged victim does not wish to pursue criminal charges or file a report, investigators will still document the information and determine whether to proceed,” Compton said.
The student was never informed that she was the subject of the investigation, according to documents filed by her attorney.
In the investigation, officers uncovered texts from the alleged assailant discussing how drunk the student was and that it appeared she wanted to have sex with him.
In the texts, his friend noted that the alleged assailant “didn’t even look tipsy.”
Eventually, detectives took another statement from the woman and obtained a warrant for her arrest in January.
In documents requesting the warrant, the detective said he had concluded that the encounter was consensual, that the student was trying to get back at her on-again, off-again boyfriend by sleeping with his best friend and had reported the assault because of her fear that news of what happened would spread.
Furthermore, the detective said the woman likely decided to press charges after speaking with the university’s IOA office because she wanted to punish her on-again, off-again boyfriend for having a relationship with another woman at the same time as her.
Over the course of the investigation, the woman’s attorney said officers mishandled the investigation and mistreated her client.
“They violated almost every tenet of trauma-informed practices during this investigation by telling our client to think of her assailant’s reputation, suggesting that our client merely regretted what she had done, and repeatedly misrepresenting the status of the case,” the attorneys said in a statement. “All told, they investigated our client’s rape for less than two hours. That’s how long it took them to conclude that our client had ‘fabricated’ being raped. A two-hour rape investigation is neither ‘serious’ nor ‘respectful.’”
The woman is charged with three counts of falsely reporting a felony crime. She could face seven to twenty-three months in prison for each charge.
A judge in June determined there was probable cause to believe she had made a false report.
She is scheduled for a hearing on her motion to dismiss on September 25 and a trial in October.
Advocates worry the Douglas County District Attorney’s choice to press charges could lead to a “chilling effect” preventing survivors across the county, especially college students, from reporting assault.
“One conclusion that can be drawn from the charging of the victim in this case is that it’s not safe to tell anyone,” said Sara Rust-Martin legal and policy director for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
The Times Up legal defense fund accepted the case for similar reasons. The organization focuses on issues of harassment in the workplace, which is deeply underreported, according to Sharyn Tejani, director of the fund.
The group considers it a case of workplace sexual harassment because the student worked with her alleged assailant.
“It involves a type of retaliation that will stop someone from coming forward and those are issues that we’re very interested in,” Tejani said.
It’s easy, Rust-Martin said, to misinterpret a sexual assault survivor’s response shortly after an incident. Trauma shows in a variety of different ways and often victims change their story as they remember pieces and act in unexpected ways.
“Everybody responds based on their own set of experiences prior to the trauma,” she said. “If somebody were to be in a really confusing situation with a lot of social consequences for decisions then that person could absolutely do things or say things that seem inconsistent with a sexual assault.”
The Lawrence detectives assigned to the student’s case admitted in court that they did not have special training in handling sexual assault cases, according to the woman’s lawyers.
The Lawrence Police Department declined to comment on personnel issues but said officers are trained on appropriately investigating “crimes of a sexual nature.”
“The LPD also works closely with the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center in Lawrence for victim advocacy and training,” the department said in a statement. “We strive to minimize victim trauma and aggressively investigate all alleged incidents of sexual assault.”
Several women recently criticized the police department for its handling of multiple reports of sexual assault against a University of Kansas guest lecturer who was not charged.
The University of Kansas declined to comment on a pending criminal investigation. The University’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access did not return The Star’s request for comment.
Rust-Martin said that she believes the woman is telling the truth. Even if officers and prosecutors don’t believe the story, she said, the choice to prosecute her set a dangerous precedent.
“Even if they decided that she wasn’t (telling the truth), even if they believed that wholeheartedly ... there is always a chance you’re wrong,” Rust-Martin said. “And to take this kind of action against someone that there is even a possibility was sexually assaulted is, in my opinion, a horrific misuse of the justice system.
“The system clearly became really energized and eager to pursue this person who was lying and yet we do not become that eager and that enthusiastic about catching people who commit more than one sexual assault in our community.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
When The Star became aware of the criminal case against the KU student, a reporter interviewed the woman’s attorney and obtained court documents. The reporter also asked questions of the police department, the district attorney’s office, The University of Kansas and advocates who defended the woman. Some of those contacted for the story submitted their responses in writing.
If you’ve had an experience similar to that described in this story, we want to hear from you. Call reporter Katie Bernard at 816-234-4167 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.