Crime

KU student who reported rape says Lawrence police were worried about man’s law career

In the week since Douglas County prosecutors dropped the false report case against her, a University of Kansas law student has seen that to most everyone else, the story is over.

But for her it’s not.

For months, while she was being prosecuted, she had to sit in silence as others talked about what happened: the alleged rape, the police investigation, the felony charges filed against her. Law enforcement officials in Lawrence publicly accused her of lying about being sexually assaulted.

On Tuesday, she for the first time spoke publicly outside of court about her experience as a sexual assault victim in the criminal justice system. She explained why she wrote text messages that would later be used against her and why she now thinks detectives weren’t interested in her case.

She had gone to police because she thought it was the right thing to do. But after what she’s been through, she said, she would tell rape victims not to report.

“I have no belief in the criminal justice system at this point,” she said.

“I have seen more outrageous behavior. And it’s one thing to read about it. It’s one thing to, to review an innocence case. But to live it and to know like I know what I experienced … No one should ever endure or have to experience what I experienced.”

When District Attorney Charles Branson dropped the three counts of making a false report on Oct. 28, he issued a statement saying he still believed in the merits of the case. But, he said, he worried that “misinformation” about the case would prevent survivors from coming forward.

Branson pledged to update his office’s guidelines for investigating and prosecuting sexually violent crimes.

The woman said Tuesday she’s not optimistic Branson will make the necessary changes.

She cited Branson’s statement as evidence that he does not understand sexual assault victims.

The past year has wreaked havoc on her personal and professional life, she said.

“To a lot of people this is over,” she said. “But to me this is going to take a very long time to recover from. I guess this is a kind of opening the next chapter of beginning to try to heal and regroup and really get my career and everything back on track that’s been postponed for a full year.”.

The Star generally does not name possible victims of sexual assault. The Star also does not generally name those accused of sexual assault unless they are criminally charged.

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Once accused of filing a false rape report, but with the charges now dropped, a KU student tells her side of the story. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Her story

The woman says she has been dealing with the consequences of her sexual assault since Sept. 28, 2018, when she woke up in the bed of her ex-boyfriend’s best friend.

According to court documents, the two had been out drinking the night before and the woman could only clearly remember the early part of the evening.

She told police that she remembered waking up to a man she knew having sex with her. When she said no, he held her down. She remembered waking up again to him still having sex with her. She pushed him off of her and then blacked out again.

Photos from her sexual assault exam, shown in court, showed sensitive injuries as well as bruising on her arms, legs and neck.

The text messages police would later point to as proof the sex was consensual were written while she was still lying in the man’s bed, with him looking over her shoulder at times.

“The second I got out of his house, the second I felt like I was quote-unquote safe was when I started calling my friend and telling her to get there quick,” she said.

“I don’t think that there’s one response that you can say is appropriate. I just think that in the moment I was trying to regain some sort of control.”

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Illustration Neil Nakahodo

Police investigation

She went to police that day, she said, because she had been raised to trust them. She thought they would protect her.

“I had the belief, and obviously it was a misplaced belief, that the right thing to do was to at least get some record of what had happened to me,” she said.

From the time she made her initial report outside Lawrence Memorial Hospital, the woman said, she felt like a suspect in an investigation she told police she didn’t want.

Days later, she said, a detective contacted her. The detective, the woman said, told her that in college towns people make mistakes and sleep with the wrong person. She asked if the woman had simply cheated on her boyfriend and regretted it.

“Those comments completely discredited my story,” she said.

As the conversation went on, the woman said, the detective pressed her to tell the alleged assailant that she had provided his name to law enforcement.

The detective said the man would want to know. The detective was concerned for the man’s future and career.

“That’s pretty clear that they had an interest in providing some sort of protection for this man that seemed pretty clear was not there for me since I was being questioned about what I had remembered and discounted to regret sex,” the woman said.

The Lawrence Police Department did not respond to The Star’s request for comment in time for publication. The department has previously declined to comment but provided information about training and protocol for officers that handle sexual assault cases.

As police continued to contact her, the woman said, she told them at least seven times that she did not want to pursue a formal complaint. She said in court records that she feared damage to her career. She said doctors advised her not to move forward to protect her mental health.

Within 90 minutes of taking her initial report, however, police had decided she was lying. They were investigating her rather than her alleged assailant, according to court testimony.

Over the course of the next few months, she had to deal with the trauma of being raped and going to class in the same building as her alleged assailant.

She was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

As she finished out her semester and entered winter break, the woman said, she finally was beginning to feel like she had conquered the first stage of her trauma.

She believed that law enforcement was supporting her and that they had ceased investigating her case.

It was the only time during her experience, she said, where she felt that she had any control.

“I made a lot of plans to try to get my career back on track, I worked with a lot of counselors to try to have a healthy response and to regroup,” she said.

That was all shattered in January, more than three months after she reported the rape, when a detective called her to talk about an anonymous note related to her case that he needed help deciphering.

“I felt like I was being validated and believed,” she said. “Maybe they’re actually taking me serious after all these terrible interactions.

“Obviously that was not the case.”

When she arrived at the police station she was told there was no note and that she was under arrest for making false statements.

Throughout the investigation, the woman’s attorney Cheryl Pilate said, police never investigated the circumstances surrounding the alleged assault itself.

They never sought medical records for the woman, or followed up with witnesses who may have seen her and her alleged assailant that night.

“Everyone knows when you’ve got a situation that is a legal situation in a criminal charge … you try and investigate the full range of facts,” Pilate said. “That didn’t happen. I can’t say why.”

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Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson Office of the Douglas County District Attorney

Prosecution

By June, the woman was in court watching her alleged rapist testify that the sex was consensual.

“There were so many points leading up to the preliminary hearing where people and individuals involved in this case could have … dived in deeper to the facts and I think we never would have ended up where we were,” she said.

The district attorney’s office, she said, had opportunities to take a second look at the evidence and ask why certain witnesses weren’t contacted and why her medical records were never reviewed.

Branson, the district attorney, initially refused to even have the woman’s rape kit tested, saying it was irrelevant to the case. A detective in October contacted the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and asked that it be tested.

On Tuesday Branson’s office did not respond to The Star’s request for comment in time for publication.

After two days of testimony from the woman, her alleged assailant, her ex-boyfriend, his girlfriend, detectives, nurses and acquaintances, a judge ruled there was probable cause to believe the woman made a false report. That meant she could face trial and, if convicted, prison.

“There were discussions about, you know, parts of my body that nobody should ever, ever have, period, let alone in public,” she said.

“Nobody should ever have to go through that, imagine the worst day of your life being scrutinized and discussed.”

Often women charged with making a false report of rape plead guilty to escape a lengthy court process, even when they are telling the truth, experts say.

The woman in the KU case said this was never an option for her.

“(Prosecutors) never viewed me as a victim,” she said. “They never wanted to offer me or communicate with me or interact with me on any level where they even really saw me as a person.”

She had lost too much to turn back. They would go to trial.

“I said, ‘look, they’ve ruined my life. I’m all in,’” the woman said.

In the past year the woman has struggled with her mental health and been diagnosed with PTSD. She suffered from panic attacks and nightmares associated with the alleged attack and subsequent criminal investigation.

The law firm she was clerking at suspended her until the case was resolved. She faced the possibility of losing the job she had been promised there after graduation.

Her graduation was pushed back, from May to December.

“Looking back through this entire ordeal. It’s completely outrageous. And I was revictimized time and time again by multiple systems that were supposed to protect me,” the woman said.

Criminal justice

The woman and Pilate said this case sheds light on the criminal justice system in Douglas County and on the work yet to be done on issues of sexual assault.

“Obviously these detectives lacked any sort of training on how to approach or address sexual assault,” she said.

Because the woman was drunk the night of the assault, she and Pilate said, it should have been clear she had not consented.

“It’s really showing some light on the fact that we don’t know what consent means in America, especially not in Douglas County,” the woman said.

“Just because you’re too intoxicated to know what’s going on or to fight back, that doesn’t mean you consent,” Pilate said.

Pilate is well-known for working on wrongful conviction cases, sometimes decades old. But she was shocked and disappointed to see this case go as far as it did, she said.

“I’m used to digging into old cases and finding facts that exonerate people. I felt like I was watching an innocence case occur in real time on my watch,” Pilate said.

The woman’s legal fees were covered in part by groups including the Times Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization founded by celebrities during the Me Too movement.

Without that help, she said, the charges might not have gotten dropped.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.
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