'No winners' in rape lawsuit

Two students forever changed by case that went to Supreme Court

By Brooke A. Masters

The Washington Post, May 19, 2000

At 23, Christy Brzonkala has had experiences few people could match in a lifetime: She’s been featured on national television, testified before Congress and fought a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But she lost her childhood dreams along the way. Her long-anticipated “real college experience” at Virginia Tech turned nightmarish because of an alleged rape, and a career in sports nutrition never materialized. Instead, she overdosed on pills, dropped out of college and now works in a bar in Adams-Morgan.

And Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against her by the slimmest of margins in her rape case.

“I fell in a big black hole, and this is where the rabbit ends up,” she said. “It was disappointment after disappointment.”

The main defendant in the case, Antonio Morrison, also saw his dreams fade. He had real pro football aspirations, but now can’t find a job even as a trainer.

“There were no winners in this thing,” said Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker. “Two students have become poster children in ways they never could have imagined. One never finished college. The other is lost in the woods. Virginia Tech was maligned and mischaracterized. And a law that was supposed to help women has been declared unconstitutional.”

Brzonkala’s journey began a month after she left her Fairfax County home for college at Virginia Tech. On a September night in 1994, she says, she was gang-raped by Morrison and another fellow freshman, James L. Crawford. Neither man was ever charged with a crime–Crawford produced an alibi witness; Morrison said the sex was consensual. And Brzonkala felt betrayed when school officials allowed both to stay in school and continue playing on the highly ranked football team.

So she filed suit, becoming the first woman to test the newly passed Violence Against Women Act, which allowed women who believe they have been victims of sex-based violence to sue their attackers in federal court.

“I would have tortured myself if I hadn’t done everything I could to get justice,” she said this week. “I went to these group sessions [for rape victims] in Fairfax, and I couldn’t stand to listen to these women say, ‘We were afraid to say anything for 20 years, and now we’re in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.’ ”

Crawford, also a defendant in Brzonkala’s suit, always said he left the room before any sexual activity occurred. He was convicted of an unrelated sexual assault and also of disorderly conduct after an altercation in a parking lot. He lost his scholarship at Virginia Tech and moved home to Florida.

His attorney, Joseph Graham Painter, said his client, who now works in retail, has deliberately tried to keep a low profile. “He’s got a lot of privacy now, and he wants to keep it that way,” Painter said.

Morrison, who said he had consensual sex with Brzonkala after she came to his room, got the bulk of the public criticism. Suspended from the football team in 1995 after he was arrested in an unrelated bar brawl, he transferred to Hampton University. After a semester there, he transferred back but did not play football again. The Chesapeake, Va., native finished at Tech last summer, receiving a degree in human nutrition, foods and exercise.

He declined to comment, but his attorney, David Paxton, said Brzonkala’s accusations have left a permanent scar. Now 23, Morrison has held several jobs but has not been able to find work as an athletic trainer, Paxton said.

“How’s he going to get hired by a college once people realize he’s the guy all the stuff has been written about? His good name has been completely trashed,” Paxton said. “He’s been convicted of something he never did.”

Both Brzonkala and Morrison are angry at Virginia Tech for the way the school handled her accusations: He and his family have said they believe he was treated unfairly because he is black; she sued the school for sex discrimination. That case was settled in February when Virginia Tech agreed to pay $ 75,000 but admitted no wrongdoing.

Although the case started as a classic “he said, she said,” by the time it reached the Supreme Court, U.S. v. Morrison was all about federalism, not sexual politics. Writing for a 5-4 majority that included Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist found that Congress had overstepped its constitutional bounds when it passed the Violence Against Women Act.

“The morning after it came down, I cried. I was thinking it would be such a relief to forget all about it and burn everything,” Brzonkala said. “But I cry whenever I think about how much I wish it would have been the other way, to have tangible evidence that we’re making progress toward men and women being equal.”

In theory, Brzonkala could still sue Morrison and Crawford in state court. But she and her attorney, Eileen Wagner, say they see little point. While the federal case helped test the new law and drew national attention to the issue of acquaintance rape, a state suit would simply be about money. And Crawford and Morrison, though they were once hot football prospects, don’t have much now.

“As far as the courts, it’s over,” Brzonkala said. “I’ve done all I can.”

The September 1994 encounter with Morrison and Crawford and all that followed have irrevocably changed Christy Brzonkala, she and her parents say.

“It hardened her,” said her father, Ken, 60, who recently retired from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “She doesn’t want anything from us. She wants to break away.”

Christy, an outgoing and bubbly high school basketball player, had plans for a sports-related career and talked about saving sex for marriage–or at least a very serious relationship, said her mother, Mary Ellen Brzonkala, 61, an optician.

At Tech, Brzonkala initially told no one of the incident. But she became a recluse and a slob, failing classes and hiding in her room. She also took a massive overdose of thyroid pills, but lied to her parents that she had had an anxiety attack.

Brzonkala told her roommate about the incident in January 1995 and then pressed charges in the campus judicial system that spring. Morrison was suspended, but the school held a second hearing after he appealed. Eventually, the provost reduced his punishment to probation plus one hour of counseling.

When she learned in a newspaper article that Morrison was coming back to school for their sophomore year, Brzonkala dropped out and eventually went public with her charges, first by giving an interview in the campus newspaper and then by filing suit.

She tried going back to college at George Mason University, a 10-minute drive from her parents’ home. But it all seemed pointless. “I tried to hang out and party and be in a dorm and have fun,” she said. “But I had no desire to be there at all with these kids.”

Two years ago, she moved to the District and tried to begin her life anew. After temping and working in customer service for Marvelous Market, she found work as a waitress and assistant manager at Madam’s Organ.

She also started a romantic relationship with a man who works there. “He doesn’t ask too much of me. He allowed me to ease back in, and he doesn’t rush me,” she said. “It’s hard to love and trust somebody.”

Brzonkala says she’d like to go back to college–someday, not right now. Her settlement money from Virginia Tech may help pay for it. But for now the cash is just sitting in a bank account.

“I’m not the same person,” Brzonkala said. “I’d probably be on my way to having a nice little family with kids and a job that requires a degree.”

“One little thing can change a whole lifetime. I think it happened to me.”