Melinda Henneberger

Prosecutor drops ‘false rape’ charge against KU student, but where’s his apology?

For months, I’ve been wondering when someone in the Douglas County District Attorney’s office would see the folly of trying to send a KU law student to prison on charges that she filed a false rape report.

Surely someone would point out that they didn’t have a case. That they were telegraphing that in Lawrence, Kansas, home to nearly 30,000 college students, it’s women who report being raped who have more to worry about than perpetrators. And that in the end, it would be the cops and the DA who would regret making false charges about false charges.

Well, that day was Monday. At long last, the district attorney’s office dropped its case against the woman, whose life has naturally been blown up by the way she was treated by those she’d counted on to protect her.

Yet did they apologize to her for immediately jumping to the wrong conclusion and then, according to their own testimony, deciding they were uninterested in learning anything else? Did they say they regret ignoring evidence that told quite a different story than their “woman scorned” narrative? Say they were sorry for putting her in handcuffs? For making her a pariah on campus? For saying that her bruises and lacerations might just as well have come from rough consensual sex?

No to all of the above.

“They just about crushed my client,” said her attorney, Cheryl Pilate.

Instead, the statement put out by District Attorney Charles Branson insisted that they did have a case and would have prevailed at trial. Why drop the charges, then?

Because due to the “significant amount of misinformation surrounding the case,” other women might get the silly idea that they don’t care about victims.

Fake news, in other words. But the testimony of police investigators — actually, non-investigators — in the case says otherwise. It’s the cops themselves who testified that they decided after only 90 minutes that the woman was lying. This after seeing messages on her phone — some of them written while she was still intoxicated and still in the situation — in which she minimized the incident.

That’s not what victims do, the cops and prosecutors said. Only, that very much is what victims do — this is “your brain on trauma” 101, in fact. And it’s a problem bigger than this case that those in charge of investigating and prosecuting rape in a major college town like Lawrence don’t know that.

They also said, based on their snap judgment, that she wasn’t too intoxicated to give consent. And again, it’s from their own testimony in a preliminary hearing that we know they made this call without looking at her bar tab, or video of her stumbling that night, or paying any mind to the texts between the alleged perpetrator and his friends laughing about how drunk she was.

“While we believe in the merits of this case and are confident the facts would be borne out at trial,” the DA’s statement said, “the cost to our community and the negative impact on survivors of sexual violence cannot be ignored. We are concerned this case, and the significant amount of misinformation surrounding it, could discourage other survivors from reporting their attack. That is unacceptable.”

If they legitimately had a case, they should have seen it through. Are they really saying they’d let false information carry the day? If this were a false report — and a small number of those do exist, obviously — I’d want her prosecuted for reinforcing the myth that this happens all the time.

As for discouraging others from reporting, yes, you have. And KU students who never even heard of this case already didn’t trust you enough to report.

Was it also misinformation that a KU guest lecturer was not charged with any crime even after four women this year alleged that he’d sexually assaulted them? No.

Or that the woman who was charged with filing a false report is not the only KU student who has said she felt like she was the one under investigation by Lawrence police? No.

Or that the prosecutor in this false rape claim case, Eve Kemple, let off with two years probation and drug treatment a man who held a KU student he met on Tinder hostage for six days he spent beating her? According to the news release the DA’s office put out at the time, in 2016, Kemple said, “The parties believe this is going to be more important to deal with the underlying issues than the domestic violence plan.”

That man’s probation was revoked last year after another woman he met online wound up dead. According to her mother, she left to see him, and the next thing she knew, had been hospitalized with a fatal head injury that “seemed too severe to be accidental.”

No one was ever charged in that case, and police later told the Lawrence Journal-World that “leads have gone cold with no conclusion on whether she was the victim of a crime.” Maybe if they spent less time looking into rape victims than suspicious deaths?

“Through this difficult case, we have learned much,” the district attorney’s Monday statement says. In it, Branson promises to “improve our response to sexually violent crimes” and “update our guidelines for investigating and prosecuting these crimes.”

That would have to start, though, with an admission of where police and prosecutors went wrong, and an apology to the woman they charged and were prepared to put behind bars.

“It is my hope,” Branson’s statement says, “that new guidelines in our jurisdiction will allow for a better understanding and more clarity.”

That’s my hope, too, but without any acknowledgment of what you did to the survivor the Lawrence cops put in handcuffs, this reads more like the statement of someone who knows his term is up next year and isn’t sure how a reelection campaign would go.

Just last week, Branson’s office announced that problem prosecutor Amy McGowan will be retiring. Protestors had called for her to step down because she failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in the case of Ricky Kidd, who was found to have been wrongly convicted of a double murder in 1996. Kidd was only freed from prison in August.

If voters in Douglas County aren’t wondering why Branson’s office seems more interested in prosecuting the innocent than the guilty, they should be.

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Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.