It was an open and shut case. A young woman reported that she had been drug into a stairwell at school and raped. The young man, seventeen, enters a guilty plea and is sentenced as an adult. He will serve five years behind bars, then five years of strict probation, and will need to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.
Justice served, right?
That’s the story of Brian Banks, a high school football star, accused of rape by his classmate, Wanetta Gibson, and threatened with forty years to life on the basis of her allegation. His legal counsel, despite Brian maintaining that he was innocent, feared a conviction and advised he go the route of a plea bargain—so that’s what the young man did.
He served his time. He had asked the California Innocence Project to take up his case, but they declined because there was a lack of evidence to prove his innocence. It seemed Brian would spend his entire life, denied opportunities, treated like a sexual predator, and unable to clear his name—all on the basis of her words. I mean who, besides his close friends and family, would believe him, that he had been falsely accused? Doesn’t every rapist claim to be innocent?
But then something extraordinary happened. His accuser, Wanetta, recanted her story (privately) and confessed that she had fabricated everything. Finally, Brian’s name was cleared. His accuser, who had won a 1.5 million dollar settlement against the school, was sued to recoup the money paided to her and has since failed to show for her court dates. Brian had a brief NFL career after this and is now an activist for those wrongly convinced.
The “only” who are falsely accused…
“The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear, and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down— those who with a word make someone out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Isaiah 29:20-21 NIV)
There is an oft-repeated claim about the frequency of false accusations being “only” 2-10%. It is a number often used by those trying to downplay the possibility that a man is innocent.
But what is the basis for this number?
The number itself is an estimate. It is based on various studies, studies like one published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology from 2017, that compare numbers of claims deemed false or baseless after an investigation. They found that between the years 2006–2010, out of 87,000–90,000 accusations of rape a year, that around 4,400–5,100 of the reports were deemed false or baseless—that works out to roughly 5.55% of allegations being determined to be false.
However, what a study like that does not take into account is that some accusations of rape are entirely baseless despite an investigation that leads to a conviction. Brian’s case is a prime example, he was found guilty despite his innocence and only exonerated because the woman who accused him later recanted her tale. There could be many more men, convicted on the basis of a false accusation, who are never exonerated because their accuser never recants.
Brian’s story is extraordinary in that his accuser was caught in her lie. However, that’s not always the case. (Not to mention, he had already served five years.) There is really no way of knowing how many, convicted on the word of an accuser, may actually be innocent despite their entering a guilty plea and being convicted. So we really do not know how many accusations are false accusations based on convictions
But, more glaring than the possibility that the number of false accusations could be far higher, is the very reality that thousands of accusations per year are false.
That is, put another way, 4,400–5,100 lives (and potentially more) with their lives turned completely upside down by a false accusation. This could be your own father, brother, nephew or son. Thousands are accused, even imprisoned, and are actually completely innocent—that is an “only” that should slow us from rushing to judgment in the case of an allegation.
That said, not near all rapes and sexual assaults are reported.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV)
It is important, at this point, to note that there are many who are victims of crimes that were never reported. I personally know multiple cases of men and women who were sexually molested and/or raped and never reported the assault to authorities. They were abused by family members, grabbed in the groin by a coworker, raped by their boyfriend and there was no police report of the incidents. That too is a sad reality, a traumatic experience that many live with, that should not be ignored.
According to the Department of Justice, in a 2014 report, an estimated 34.8% incidents of sexual assaults are reported to authorities. That is to say that only 3 or 4 out of ten sexual assaults are ever properly investigated and adjudicated.
Now, that this is NOT to say that there is an equal number of rapists to those unreported incidents.
According to a report about repeat rape among “undetected” offenders, repeat rapists “average 5.8 rapes each” and thus the number of undetected rapists is only a fraction of the number of victims. In other words, only a small number of men account for the majority of the incidents and this is precisely why people should report criminal incidents—reporting in a timely manner will protect other people from repeat offenders.
It should come as no surprise, then, that someone who was raped would not report it at the time it happened. Likewise, it should not be a surprise that many rapists continue their life free of consequence for their actions. This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, it is the reason why we should always take allegations seriously even if they come out years and years after the assault is said to have happened. There are many unreported assaults, people come forward at different times for different reasons, and this is something to always be aware of in our analysis of reports.
We can (and should) take a clear stand against all forms of abuse.
There is a false choice out there. There are some who deny allegations on the basis of false reports. There are others who dismiss claims of innocence and downplay false allegations as insignificant on the basis of under-reporting statistics.
But we should not choose one or the other. It does the real victims of sexual assault no good to presume the guilt of a man simply on the basis of accusations. It also is wrong to side against an accuser because there are false accusations or they haven’t reported the event immediately after it happened.
We should never disregard an allegation off hand. We should never decide someone’s guilt or innocence by a mere claim or statistics. We can both take sexual abuse allegations seriously and also be reasonably skeptical of the accusations. When pressured to take the side of an accuser or the accused we should take neither side and take the side of justice instead. Every case is different. Every court is different. We must be wise.
Know your own bias and adjust your judgment accordingly!
Still, we all tend to see things from a biased perspective. In the case of Brian Banks, the prosecutor and other authorities believed he was guilty on the basis of the testimony of the young woman. These were well-educated people, people aware of bias, and yet they failed him. In many other cases, there is undo skepticism of those coming forward with allegations and denial of justice to victims of abuse. Both of these things must be guarded against. A person making an allegation should be heard and their story believed. An accused person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not be denied due process.
Ultimately, if an allegation falls within the statute of limitations, it is the responsibility of the police to investigate and the job of the courts to decide based on the evidence that they have. I prefer that we side with the evidence, that a charge must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that defendants not be tried in the court of public opinion, perp-walked or treated as if guilty unless there is evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt:
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (Sir William Blackstone)
Two wrongs never make a right. As much as we want justice for the victims of sexual abuse we should not neglect justice for those accused. It does the true victims no good to create another victim by locking up those falsely accused and truly innocent. We should not punish anyone for a crime that they did not commit and especially not as a result of our prejudice against their race, gender, religion or other a defining characteristic.
We need to be a voice for justice.
False accusations, from the Salem Witch Trials to Emmett Till and everything before or after, come because there is power in making them. An accusation can bring a confirmation hearing to a grinding halt, it can cause questions about a political rival’s character that didn’t exist before and mere words can destroy lives—therefore we must always stand for the rights of the accused.
That said, we must never deny the oppressed, we should have compassion for those abused and especially for abused who have remained silent for fear of not being believed or other reasons—therefore we must always be a voice for the abused.
May God give us wisdom!