Even “I’m sorry” Is Too Much to Give a Man Falsely Accused of Rape

by pierceharlan on December 21, 2010

Remember John Keogh? Mr. Keogh was a 23-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who was accused of indecently assaulting another hospital patient last year. An investigation was launched, but on July 4, 2009, after interviewing the young man, police dropped the case, withdrew all charges, and immediately informed the complainant. The trouble was, they didn’t bother to inform Mr. Keogh, who was extremely upset about the allegation. On July 7, he hanged himself with a pair of shoelaces. In the UK, “victims” have the right to be told when a case is dropped, suspects don’t.

Remember 19-year-old Cory Headen? Last year, two teenage girls lied to another 19-year-old man that Mr. Headen had raped one of them, so the man broke into Mr. Headen’s home and beat him to death with a baseball bat while he was sleeping.

How about Sumbo Owoiya? A 15-year-old girl falsely told her boyfriend that Mr. Owoiya, 18, raped her. The girl, the boyfriend, and another man then drove to the innocent youth’s apartment. While Mr. Owoiya was looking through a peep hole, the other man shot him to death through the door. The boyfriend was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, but the girl was given a suspended sentence.

And John Chalmers, a 47-year-old prominent businessman, suffered devastating brain injuries in a vicious attack after he was wrongly suspected of raping one of his workers. So terrible was the beating that Mr. Chalmers has had to “learn everything again.”

I could go on and on and on. Once unleashed, a rape lie can destroy lives in sudden, unpredictable ways. We could literally write a book about the horrors suffered by men and boys falsely accused of rape, which we chronicle daily at False Rape Society. Victims of rape lies frequently lose their jobs, their friends, their life savings, their businesses, and pretty much anything else important to them.  As shown by the cases cited above, the potential harm to victims of false rape accusations literally knows no bounds.

False rape accusers: Therapy preferred over charges

In contrast, the punishment allowed to their false accusers is always extremely limited. Typically, they aren’t charged at all, and when they are charged, it’s customary to ask that no custodial sentence be given. That request is frequently granted. Dr. Kim McGregor, a well-known authority on sexual assault, recommends “some form of therapeutic intervention rather than charging them” because, she said, “someone need[s] to be ‘pretty distressed’ to make a false allegation of sexual assault.” If false accusers are charged, they often serve less jail time than their victims served after being falsely accused. The statutory schemes in all or virtually all states severely limit the maximum sentences allowed for false rape reporting, often ranging from less than a year to two years.

With the explosion in rape reforms over the past thirty years, we have handed women and girls unprecedented power to see to it that their rapists are charged and convicted. The problem is, we never considered what we should do if they abuse that power with rape lies.

Our jurisprudence accepts the notion that, generally, the more serious a crime harms an innocent person, the more severe the sentencing should be. Given the extreme harm possible to men falsely accused of rape, and given the de minimis sentences given to false accusers, the sentencing maximums are an affront to justice. Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely, given the powerful feminist lobby, that the sentencing maximums for false rape reporting will be extended in the foreseeable future.

Given that, what can we do to bring at least partial restoration to falsely accused men? One of the principal harms suffered by men falsely accused of rape is the injury to their reputations. While it’s impossible to restore a man’s good name after he’s been branded a rapist in America’s leading dailies, is it too much to ask the false accuser to run an apology ad? Apparently, it is. Apparently it’s a punitive humiliation, a “scarlet letter,” and cruel and unusual punishment.

Why not a public apology?

In 2007, Angela Schmidt, a former teacher, was given a special form of accelerated rehabilitation probation for falsely reporting that a colleague had raped her. Under the terms of this probation, the charges would be dropped if the probation was successfully completed.

A prosecutor requested that the sentencing judge order Schmidt to run a newspaper ad saying she falsely accused her colleague of rape. The prosecutor argued: “Anyone who wrongly accuses someone of a crime should be on notice to the public. Any other potential victims need to be aware of this woman.”

Schmidt’s lawyer said the ad proposal reminded him of “pilgrims and stockade in front of the town square.” He called it a “humiliation,” and noted that it would violate Schmidt’s right against self-incrimination. The court refused to force Ms. Schmidt to run the ad.

But one judge did have the courage to order apology ads for a false rape claim, in a case that attracted national attention.

In September 1988, Elizabeth Irene Richardson, 24, a central Nebraska meat packing worker with three children, falsely accused Gary L. Nitsch, a quiet 43-year-old alfalfa-mill worker and father of two who neither smoke nor drank, of rape in order to get the attention of her long-distance truck driver husband. One night, she ripped her nightgown and called a friend in tears to tell her she’d been raped. The friend called police.

Mr. Nitsch had met Ms. Richardson just once, and only briefly, when he went to her house inquiring about a painting job she had advertised. He never assaulted her. Then, one day, out of the blue, while he was shopping, he was arrested and spent three days in jail before his brother was able to have him released on a $30,000 bond. He was charged with sexual assault. The dumbfounded Mr. Nitsch uttered the same thing many falsely accused men in his position end up saying: “I would just like to know how I was named.”

As a result of the false charge, Mr. Nitsch lost his job and his family was harassed. At school, other children taunted his kids by saying, “Your dad’s a rapist.” His wife no longer liked coming into town to go shopping. His 18-year-old daughter quit high school because of the way she was treated. After Mr. Nitsch was released, he heard the stories circulating about people in the area buying guns and about wives being scared of him.

Ms. Richardson testified at a hearing that Mr. Nitsch raped her, but the case was dropped for lack of strong physical evidence. Ms. Richardson’s lie was discovered after she told friends the accusation was a hoax, and she was convicted of perjury after pleading no contest.

But, of course, Ms. Richardson was not fully responsible for her acts. In words that could be transposed to a thousand other recent false rape cases, Ms. Richardson’s lawyer said: “She was desperate to get [her husband] back and acted very impulsively without giving consideration to the thing, and it kind of snowballed on her.”

Judge John P. Murphy sentenced Ms. Richardson to serve six months in prison, but he didn’t stop there. He also required her to run half-page newspaper ads in all four newspapers, and ten spot announcements on both radio stations, in Dawson County, Nebraska. The apology ads were expected to cost approximately $1,000. Mr. Nitsch was given the right to approve the ads.

The Judge justified the ads: ”You certainly couldn’t force someone to say something they didn’t believe,” he told a reporter, ”but I have allowed her to put it into her own words. I told her the reason. Mr. Nitsch’s brother complained the rape charges were all over the papers, but when he was exonerated nobody hears about it. I told her the only way to get it out was to have her do it.”

But the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union said the advertising requirement could violate three constitutional amendments: the 1st, which guarantees freedom of speech; the 8th, against cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th, with its guarantee of due process. The NCLU’s executive director said the organization is “concerned about the scarlet letter approach in sentencing.”

Sorry, but “cruel and unusual” punishment is what happened to Gary Nitsch, not to mention John Keogh, Cory Headen, Sumbo Owoiya, and John Chalmers in the cases referenced above. An apology ad would just partly undo the grotesque reputational harm to Mr. Nitsch.  If it caused the criminal some slight embarrassment, that’s a small price to pay to partly correct a monstrous wrong.

Ms. Richardson decided to drop her appeal and just get it over with. So, on a Sunday in 1990, radio listeners in Central Nebraska heard the young woman declare: “I want the public to know these allegations were not true and that I made up the story for personal reasons.” She said she hopes time will heal the damage to the falsely accused man’s reputation.

Mr. Nitsch said he would have preferred a stiffer sentence. So would we all.  But he should take some small consolation in the fact that the woman who tried to randomly destroy his life was forced to stand up in the proverbial town square and publicly declare, “He didn’t do, and I’m sorry I lied!” At least now, any time someone Googles Mr. Nitsch’s name, they will see that she was the criminal, and he was the victim.  That’s a lot more than most victims of false rape claims get.

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