It was, sadly, a remarkably unremarkable description of the perp.
At 3:21 a.m. on August 28, 2015, campus police were called to Porter Hall where a young woman had been groped in her sleep. The attacker fled and dropped cigarettes and a lighter.
“She was sleeping, and it was very difficult for her to make an identification,” attorney Paul Michalek said.
She said it was a short, black man in black shorts.
You can’t blame the young woman for being unable to provide a more detailed description. Awake, most people can’t describe another person well. Asleep, it was likely impossible. And assuming, as we should, that she was, indeed, groped (though it would be helpful if a less conclusory word was used), she certainly had good reason to call campus police. This was a crime, and the perpetrator of the crime should be caught.
Nineteen minutes later at 3:40 a.m., police see Bethel in black shorts with three friends on the other side of campus.
“He was interviewed, the other gentlemen were interviewed,” Michalek said. “They told the officer where they were, and they were let go.”
Given the sparsity of the description, it was certainly reasonable for the police to inquire. And it was similarly reasonable for the police to let them go.
The four said they were together all night and just came from an off-campus restaurant, Jim’s Steakout. According to documents obtained by NEWS10 ABC, three of the men are carrying food with them from the restaurant. Bethel also had a receipt for what he ate still in this pocket.
The alibi was a lock. Without the alibi, it was still a stretch, as being black in black shorts isn’t so incredibly unusual that it nailed down guilt. But when no other potential perp presented himself, they went back to the well.
But 20 minutes later at 4 a.m., police knocked on Bethel’s door and asked him to come downtown.
“They put me in an elevator to take me downstairs, and everybody on my floor had seen me in handcuffs,” he said.
The alleged victim was brought down to make an identification. There was no police lineup; just Bethel sitting alone already in handcuffs.
Chances are strong, extremely strong, that the victim couldn’t possibly identify the face of her attacker. The combination of extraneous detail, black skin, black shorts, plus handcuffs and a show-up ID, makes victims identify people for all the wrong reasons. They want to get their attacker. They want to identify the bad guy. And the cops think he did it, which is good enough for most people. And so she did.
Within hours, Bethel receives an e-mail from the dean telling him he is suspended and banned from campus. As he sat in jail for the next five days, the media is told about the arrest, and it is all over the internet.
“You Googled his name, it was football highlights,” Berkley-Taylor said. “Now you Google his name, nothing but the assault.”
Six weeks later, the DNA test results came back from the cigarettes and lighter left behind by the attacker. It wasn’t Elijah Bethel. There was video from the restaurant where they ate, but apparently the campus police didn’t bother to look at it. That could have cleared up any doubt on the night Bethel was arrested. Instead, he waited for six weeks before all charges were dropped. The five days he spent in jail were the days he was supposed to start college at SUNY Buffalo State. The time he was suspended was the time he should have been enjoying his first semester of his freshman year.
Certainly, the young woman who was groped in her sleep didn’t have a pleasant start to the school year. But there is no connection between her attack and Bethel. One was the victim of a crime. The other was black and wore black shorts. Crime happens. It’s not good that it does, but it does. The other didn’t have to happen.
Bethel spent five days in jail and his reputation was ruined. The only school that would let him enroll after this racist incident was Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
Buffalo State hasn’t apologized for its racist actions, Bethel told the news station.
If there’s one thing you take away from this story, it’s this: Buffalo State is racist.
To those unattuned to the dynamic of the situation, this might seem hyperbolic, even excessive. It’s not. An arrest must be based on probable cause. Bethel was a black man in black shorts. Not exactly a unique description. But he was ID’d cuffed in a show up, the worst possible procedure. The victim’s race isn’t stated, but cross-racial identifications are notoriously bad, and this victim was asleep when she was groped, which suggests the room was dark and she wasn’t in the best situation to note a face regardless.
At the same time, Bethel had an alibi. He had proof of his alibi, in his receipt. He had three people to corroborate his alibi, and it’s likely the server at the restaurant could have done so as well. And then the restaurant had video, which should have locked down the alibi, had there been any doubt whatsoever.
Yet he was arrested. Yet he was held, presumably on bail, for five days. Yet he was immediately suspended by the school, because there was a sexual assault, and the school couldn’t possibly take a chance, any chance, at letting a woman’s complaint go without someone being blamed for it. They had a body, and better he be presumed guilty than any woman put at risk.
Bethel was a star in the classroom and on the football field.
Bethel was there to be educated, to enjoy his first taste of freedom as a budding adult. And he was a young black man wrongly accused of a sexual assault, that should have been cleared up in an hour, with an apology. But he wasn’t at the top of the marginalized pyramid, and so his life was readily sacrificed because there was a more “valued” victim at stake.