By Curt A. Levey
The National Law Journal, February 7, 2000
As Al Sharpton’s rallies supporting Tawana Brawley and her later-discredited hate crime allegations proved a dozen years ago, the innocence of the accused is easily shoved aside when an alleged victim becomes the symbol for a civil rights crusade. Tony Morrison knows this all too well.
He is one of two men Christy Brzonkala accuses of raping her while the three were Virginia Tech students. Her federal suit against the men under the Violence Against Women Act’s civil remedy provision is now at the Supreme Court, which is considering the provision’s constitutionality. Ms. Brzonkala reigns as the Act’s poster girl, while the news media and the law’s supporters brand Mr. Morrison a rapist. You’d never know that he has twice been cleared of the rape charges.
Even if journalists have trouble distinguishing unproven allegations from fact, one would expect better of attorneys charged with enforcing the law. The Jan. 17 Podium column by lawyers from the New York State Attorney General’s Office was, therefore, very disappointing. The authors state categorically that Ms. Brzonkala was “repeatedly raped” and cite Mr. Morrison’s mild punishment as evidence that she was “denied even a semblance of institutional justice” by Virginia Tech.
The authors ignore the fact that both a Virginia grand jury – after a two-month state police investigation – and a university judicial committee were unconvinced that a rape had occurred. They also neglect to mention that Mr. Morrison’s punishment was for “offensive and demeaning language,” not rape.
Assumption of guilt
The attitude that there can be no justice until Mr. Morrison is convicted and punished starts with Ms. Brzonkala and the feminist activists who represent her. For example, Ms. Brzonkala’s complaint alleges that “gender discrimination” was behind Virginia Tech’s conclusion that it had erred by trying Mr. Morrison under a policy not in effect at the time of the alleged rape. University officials rectified their mistake by trying Mr. Morrison a second time, but Ms. Brzonkala complains that they broke a supposed promise to make the second hearing “a mere technicality,” with guaranteed results.
More generally, Ms. Brzonkala’s supporters tout the “failure” of the grand jury and university to reach the desired conclusion as evidence that states are hopelessly biased against female victims.
The resulting need for a federal remedy is the political and asserted legal basis for the Violence Against Women Act. Ms. Brzonkala thwarted state efforts by refusing to appear before the grand jury and voluntarily dismissing her state suit against her alleged attackers, but this is apparently deemed irrelevant.
In a similar vein, Ms. Brzonkala’s Supreme Court brief condemns state conviction rates for violence against women, blaming them, in part, on “historic acceptance of sexual violence against women.”
All this rhetoric comes dangerously close to suggesting that the law will be found wanting until every accusation of sexual assault and domestic abuse results in conviction or a damage award. Under that view, the Act is a godsend. Its civil and criminal provisions allow a man to be tried up to four times on the same set of facts–twice in state court and twice in federal court.
Ms. Brzonkala and her supporters trumpet the law as essential protection for the civil rights of women. But what about Mr. Morrison’s rights? It used to be that when a black man in the South faced unsubstantiated charges of raping a white woman, civil rights crusaders flocked to the black man’s defense. Now they flock to Christy Brzonkala.
A clue to the dramatic shift lies in the law’s ideological name. By singling out women as victims and men as predators, the statute ratifies the radical feminist view of men as the oppressor class. The rights of accused men suffer as a result.
If it’s better to let 100 guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man, that message has been lost on the feminist activists who lobby to make convicting men easier. They fail to understand that neither women nor men will be safer if the fight against rape and domestic abuse comes at the expense of cherished civil liberties.
Defendants facing sexual assault charges have been at the heart of historic Supreme Court cases establishing the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendment rights of defendants. One wonders whether those rights can survive the political climate that produced the Violence Against Women Act.