Slate on False Accusations of Rape

Trigger warning for rape. Note: rape apologist bullshit in the comments is NOT ALLOWED.  

Slate has a fascinating article about how Virginia has DNA evidence that may prove that dozens of men were convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In September 2004, the governor of Virginia ordered a random audit of 31 criminal cases when a trove of old biological evidence was found; as it happens, those 31 criminal cases included two rapists who didn’t actually commit the rape. In late 2005, the governor, kind of embarrassed by the “shit, we accidentally convicted the wrong people” thing, ordered that every sample obtained between 1973 and 1988 be rechecked.

Virginia’s program is highly mysterious: however, sources suggest that more than seventy people have been proven not to convict the crime they were accused of. However, only a handful of the falsely convicted have received the exonerations they deserve. Two people have been formally exonerated; one man, deceased, has had his name cleared of the rape he didn’t commit; a fourth is currently being processed.

The problem? The Department of Forensic Science was in charge of notifying prosecutors and police. Lawyers who were in charge of notifying the accused people that they were being retested were told not to explain the letter, which was written in legal jargon, so most people had no idea what it meant and were just freaked out that the state was apparently reopening their cases. Jonathan Sheldon, a lawyer, has devoted a lot of effort to getting the seventy names and tracking down people who were exonerated to tell them what’s going on.

What strikes me about this story is the true epidemic of false rape accusations: not people who pretend that consensual sex is rape, nor people who make up that someone had sex with them, but people who were legitimately raped and accused the wrong person. There are lots of reasons why someone might be mistaken about the identity of their rapist: eyewitness evidence is notoriously unreliable. Some circumstances around rapes– from being passed out to being very drunk or high, from the stress of being a rape survivor to being raped by an acquaintance or stranger– may make identification even more difficult.

Not only is this bad from the “an innocent person is imprisoned” point of view, it’s also bad because a rapist has gone free. And since most rapes are committed by repeat rapists, it’s likely the rapist went on to rape again. On a practical level, the misidentification of rapists (along with people who have committed other crimes, such as murder) is much easier to eliminate than other forms of false accusation.

In the United States, The Innocence Project has been working to exonerate people who have been accused of crimes they didn’t commit: over 250 people have been exonerated due to DNA evidence since 1989. Only four of the exonerated people were women, because men are more likely to commit and be convicted for sex crimes or violent crimes. They also lobby for reforms to confession, eyewitness identification, evidence preservation, etc. that can make sure that the mostly men who are accused of crimes they did not commit can get justice.

Have I mentioned how much I fucking love that organization? I fucking love that organization.

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Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.


  1. dancinbojangles says:

    @Michael: It’s not just women and children though. ALL eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and women and children’s testimony is no exception. A witness continuing to uphold his statement is not proof that their testimony was accurate. Indeed, there have been cases of DNA evidence exonerating people that eyewitnesses were certain beyond a shadow of doubt were guilty. Certainly, there are sure to be false negatives as well as false positives, and that’s a problem too. However, it’s not the problem that the innocence project addresses.

  2. All Contraire says:

    Tim Cole was a young African-American army veteran and student at Texas Tech U. who was convicted for raping a fellow student in 1985 and sentenced to 25 years based solely on his identification by the victim, and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do it. He didn’t; but his complete exoneration came too late. Tim, by all accounts exactly the type of male role model the Black community is sorely missing, died in prison in 1999.

  3. “So… considering that these 214 samples are essentially random, doesn’t this suggest that 1 in 3 rape convictions in Virginia are wrongful convictions? That is horrific.”

    And doesn’t this proportionality, generally speaking, in itself constitute “reasonable doubt” in the remainder of the mentioned cases? The roughly 600 ones where there was testable DNA but the quality of the samples were not in sufficient condition to yield accurate results?

    Meaning the convictions of 400 actual rapist and 200 falsely convicted individuals should, by general legal principles, be overturned?

    Putting a lot (those of them still in jail) of rapists back on the street, to, at least in some cases, rape again?

    Shit, this is difficult.

  4. This is a little absurd. There is forensic evidence that it is reasonable to doubt the courts.

  5. @dancinbojangles: And there is a lot of work to be done that doesn’t involve drastically cutting prison sentences for violent crimes. (Sentences for non-violent crimes should be mostly done away with, imo.) What you’re saying is like “before we can train the lion not to bite your head off, you need to get it used to having your head in its mouth”.

  6. “@dancinbojangles: And there is a lot of work to be done that doesn’t involve drastically cutting prison sentences for violent crimes. (Sentences for non-violent crimes should be mostly done away with, imo.) What you’re saying is like “before we can train the lion not to bite your head off, you need to get it used to having your head in its mouth”.”

    We should:

    1) Get rid of long sentences for petty crimes, instead having rehabilitation for first offense violent non-murder crimes, assault crimes and drug or money-related crimes. Rehabilitation including heavy restrictions for a time (being on parole or at an halfway house, sort of).

    2) Remove the publicness of the register of sex offenders. REGARDLESS of the offense, people immediately think: Pedophile! My (very young) children will be raped! It could have been 18 yo to 16 yo consensual sexual contact or rape of an adult. They won’t care. It makes the convicted unable to find a place to live, unable to find a place to work – and as such, highly susceptible to commit other crimes (like thievery) just to feed themselves (because food costs money, and being unemployable means no legal money).

    3) Remove the right for employers to look up or ask for criminal antecedents unless they have a right to (because it’s a job involving security clearance, or especially vulnerable populations, like the elderly, the very young, and minor students). Or else you’re throwing rehabilitation aims out the window: It becomes 1 conviction, no (legal) job ever. Guess what they’ll do instead? Prostitution and drug selling, jobs that don’t care about your backstory. Sort of what trans people are forced to do in certain countries (like Brazil, Thailand), because they’re not accepted as the sex they identify as legally, ever, and it makes others squeamish of that…enough to never employ them except in shadier stuff.

  7. @Michael: First ALL eyewitness testimony is questionable. People can easily recall something poorly, and leading questions change what they remember as well. Two, children are especially easily confused, which shouldn’t be surprising its not like we act like children have the mental abilities of adults in any other area.
    The third area of worry is especially for children is adults influencing a child’s memory. This is possible even with adults, and children are already not at the mental level of an adult, are conditioned to trust adults, and are all in all much more susceptible to influence. Even just asking leading questions of a child can influence what they remember.
    Look I’m sorry the facts don’t support what you would like to believe about the world. But women and children are not reliable witnesses on the account of them being human.

  8. @Schala:
    “It could have been 18 yo to 16 yo consensual sexual contact or rape of an adult.”

    Or Public Exposure by some poor guy who went for a leak behind a tree and was seen by peeping kids. He’s now marked as “OMG pedophile rapist” for life because he couldn’t hold it.

  9. dancinbojangles says:

    @L: Well, I can agree that we could focus on cutting sentences for non-violent crimes initially. However, I’m not saying we should just cut sentences for violent offenders full stop. I think we need to reform the very idea of the justice system to focus on societal benefit and the safety of future victims, rather than revenge for past victims. We can quibble about term length, certainly, and I accept your point of view, even if I disagree with it. That said, things like permanent disenfranchisement and employment discrimination need to end.

  10. Typical mindset: “Falsely imprisoned? Whatever, I’m sure he’s guilty of something. Look at his long record of prior convictions.” Especially if he’s black.

  11. Call be crazy, but I’m betting more mainstream feminism blogs aren’t going to cover this article. Because it’s about the menz. A quick Google indicates the only thing in VA they’re currently concerned with is the controversy over the abortion bill.

  12. Robert Franklin says:

    Of 287 people found to be factually innocent and exonerated by the work of the Innocence Project, 237 (82.6%) had been convicted of rape, sexual assault, sexual battery or other sex crimes. One of those wrongly convicted of rape was a woman. Of the 287 exonerated, 4 were women.

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