The Silence of the Witnesses

The role played by sociology professor Danielle Dirks, in counseling the purported Occidental College victim to cry rape despite having engaged in consensual sex, became widely known from the publishing of publicly available court papers.  Her name didn’t hit the big time because she was an innocent victim to a terrible crime, but because of what she said:

The student, identified only as “John Doe,” had sex with his accuser on September 8th, 2013, according to details of the case obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Both Doe and his accuser had been drinking. By several accounts, the sex was consensual. The accuser sent Doe a text message beforehand asking him if he had a condom. She also texted a friend and clearly announced her intention to have sex with Doe.

After that night, the accuser spoke with several Occidental employees, including Danielle Dirks, an assistant professor of sociology. Dirks told the accuser that Doe “fit the profile of other rapists on campus in that he had a high GPA in high school, was his class valedictorian, was on [a sports team], and was ‘from a good family.’”

A week later, the accuser filed a sexual assault report against Doe.

At Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade attacks FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for its discussion of the Oxy case, including Dirks’ role in influencing the accuser to cry post-hoc rape. 

FIRE contended in an email blast to followers that the expulsion lacked due process for the accused.

“What kind of a radical fucking man hating dyke are you?” the angry stranger asked the witness in the email. “Please, slice your goddamn wrists, nail your pussy shut and go wait tables before you harm someone else. It’s bitches and whores like you who give women a bad name.” (The witness requested anonymity for this story an attempt to avoid further harassment.)

The email author presumably got the witness’ name through a confidential investigator’s report that FIRE had posted online, along with its announcement supporting Doe.

This email is truly bad stuff,* and it’s certainly clear why Dirks, or anyone, would have hated receiving it.  But is it harassment?  Are these true threats?

“How can you feel anything but terror when you read through these vile comments online that are only directed at the survivor and the women in this case?” the witness who received the Missouri email told HuffPost.

Terror?  Well, anybody can feel anything they want to feel, I guess, so if terror is what she felt, than that’s what she felt.  But so what?

Aidan Dougherty, a male witness interviewed for the case, who agreed to speak on the record for this article, said disclosure of witness names sends a message. “Future witnesses might not step forward or tell the whole truth because they do not want their friends and family — let alone the world — to know that they had been drinking or smoking the night of an incident, all important pieces to a testimony,” he said.

Dougherty said publishing the names of witnesses leaves Doe and the reported victim vulnerable as well.

“FIRE may have omitted the names of the survivor and the perpetrator, but the fact that they publicized the witnesses’ names nullified everyone’s privacy,” Doughery said. “It does not take a lot to put two and two together to find out who the omitted persons are when you include the names of both their roommates, the residence hall they live in, and their room number.”

At Minding the Campus, KC Johnson debunks many of Kingkade’s factual claims in his post, where accuracy takes a back seat to advocacy, but the bigger question of whether witnesses might be dissuaded from testifying if they might be exposed to public condemnation, and whether that means it’s wrong to reveal their identities.

Forget the ridiculousness of Dirks’ particular advice, and consider instead the revelation of the identify of a witness for the alibi defense in a heinous murder, say a beloved child.  If the name of the witness is publicly revealed, you can bet that hate mail and threats would come from all quarters.  Indeed, it may well go much farther than just hate mail.

So does this change the scenario enough to cause concern about the disclosure of witness identities?  The problem feels differently, but isn’t.  It’s what distinguishes trial in the star chamber from a public trial, where unfortunately for some but not so much for society, it is all subject to public scrutiny.

Granted, no one cares most of the time, and even if they did, no one would be crazy enough to send the sort of email Dirks received. But the outlier should never dictate the concern, and, even so, that’s the price of free speech, free press and a legal system that doesn’t allow accusations or claims to be concealed from public view.  It has to hold up under the brightest of sunlight, not just in the shadows.

The position promoted by Kingkade goes straight down the line taken to protect rape “survivors” from the further trauma of having their accusations tested, denying the accused the opportunity to challenge his accuser.  Not only does the accuser require special protection at the expense of basic due process, but the witnesses too must be shielded from view so their feelings aren’t hurt by the “terror” of reaction.

Despite wrapping the argument in the emotional reaction to the vile email, together with some dubious factual claims of his own, what Kingkade seeks is to further bury the process of sexual assault accusations from view, further reduce any possible scrutiny, block out any sunlight that might reveal that the hyperbole and appeal to emotion has no factual foundation.

It’s unfortunate that Dirks received a vile email. Then again, it’s unfortunate that Dirks gave vile advice that caused an innocent student to be falsely accused of a rape that never happened.  So whose feelings warrant greater protection?  No one’s feelings, as accusations are about facts and reality, not hurt feelings.

* Lest it be unclear, I find the content of the email sent Dirks disgusting and unacceptable under any circumstances.  It goes far over the line of propriety or justifiability, no matter how “outraged” its sender may have been.  There is never a acceptable reason for such vile communication.

7 comments on “The Silence of the Witnesses

  1. John Barleycorn

    It’s time for a game of twister.

    Pro tip: Lightly spray the game dial in your twister set with pledge furnisher polish for longer life and better performance.

  2. Herbert Stock

    Isn’t it a crime to encourage a false allegation of rape or to withhold information that a claim is false? I seem to recall a common law offence of ‘Misprison of a Felony’ – does this still apply in the US.

    1. SHG Post author

      First, there is no longer such a thing as a “common law” crime in the United States. It’s all statutory. That said, there is a statutory crime of misprision of felony, which is almost never used.

      But you miss the point of what’s happening. What is or is not a false rape accusation is the battle, so Dirks’ the encouragement isn’t at all false, by their way of thinking or in accordance with the position taken by the DoE. False is never quite as simplistic as it would appear. Therein lies the problem.

  3. Fubar

    Excerpted from a manuscript initially hailed as a lost fifth book of Pope’s Dunciad, but quickly proved a wretchedly bad forgery, by a document examiner who could count.

    Computer-armed, angry and witless,
    Some jerk sent vile taunts to a witness.
    “Slice your wrists!” is a threat?
    Sayeth Kingkade, “You bet!”
    Casting doubt on his logical fitness.

    FIRE published the court-released docs.
    (They never were locked in Fort Knox.)
    “The vile taunt’s recipient
    Was a witness percipient.
    Lock ‘em up again!” bleat HuffPo’s flocks:

    “Due process must always accrue
    To me and mine, less so to you.
    Tell the world that I’m talking,
    I’ll be victim of stalking.
    Common sense tells us that just won’t do.”

    So goes forth this tale of stupidity,
    And reasoning of dubious validity.
    Do red faces enraged
    Show their brains are engaged?
    Or cerebral post-mortem lividity?

    1. John Barleycorn

      Fubar,

      Lets do some “crime”.

      The delayed comprehension alone will be a wicked soft smile.

      Cheers.

      1. John Barleycorn

        If Fubar doesn’t have the salt labeled Hegel and the pepper with a mug shot of Nietzsche I am giving and he will bend to the tour if I ever meet him.

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