Campus Report: Anatomy of a Rape Case at the University of Virginia

In November 2012, our client “Ms. X” wrote this reflection about her experience with the student sexual misconduct disciplinary process at the University of Virginia. Her disappointment with that process led to a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights whose lack of timely and appropriate response resulted in the landmark civil rights lawsuits currently pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

As an attorney who represents victims of campus sexual assault and rape, I applaud survivors like “X” for their strength and courage in telling their stories.

I also represent Stacy who is profiled in this article in Rolling Stone. Our case was one of only fourteen in UVA history where the perpetrator was found guilty. Stacy’s perpetrator was suspended. It’s unlikely that many of the other thirteen guilty perpetrators were even suspended. None of the fourteen guilty perpetrators were expelled.

The assistance and advice of an attorney is essential for victims to ensure the integrity and fairness of the system, the thoroughness and appropriateness of the questions asked, and the pros and cons of the myriad of choices for achieving some measure of justice.

Please contact me if you were raped or sexually assaulted on campus. Our lawyers are experienced with the civil, criminal, and disciplinary options facing victims and survivors.

If you were raped or sexually assaulted, please read this post What to do if you are sexually assaulted or raped.

“This was a very difficult case. Ms. X provides a very compelling and believable account of the events and has clearly been affected by this incident. Mr. Y, your behavior was crass and disrespectful but this panel could not come to a unanimous conclusion that the policy had been violated in this instance. That said, this panel urges you, Mr. Y, to evaluate your actions and your treatment of women in the future. We would strongly suggest that you consider counseling around the issue of consent and respecting the wishes of your sexual partners. The panel wishes Ms. X well as she continues to work through the trauma that this incident has clearly caused.”

These are the words that Dean E. read out loud at the conclusion of a grueling ten-hour hearing in which I had to single-handedly defend my case against the person who had drugged and raped me last December.

He offered me a beer during a club meeting on Grounds. The next thing I could remember was waking up in a sun-light room, naked, in pain, next to him. I rushed out of the apartment as quickly as I could, even though I had no idea where I was. I spent the day confused, sinking deeper and deeper into depression, mercilessly blaming myself for putting myself in such a vulnerable position.

I got home, ripped my clothes off and took an hour-long shower, scrubbing my body down to the bone, cleaning any remaining semen I had on me. I could only look at myself in the mirror in disgust, seeing him on top of me.

I tried getting through the remainder of the day as though nothing had happened. It wasn’t so simple. Something in me had changed, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Suicidal thoughts constantly crossed my mind. In one day, I had morphed from a cheery and carefree girl into an empty shell whose life had become a nightmare. By the end of the day, I was unable to keep the pain to myself and broke down in tears as I recounted the few memories I had of the night to two of my closest friends.

I remember crumbling onto the floor as I realized that I had been drugged, then raped. One of my professors contacted the Dean of Students office. I went there with my parents and was encouraged not to officially report the rape, but rather to go through mediation with the rapist. I refused.

The sole idea of his sight and of his voice sickened me. Dean E. further added that no one had been expelled for rape in over ten years.

How could this be possible, when the statistics are that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in college?

I went to the Martha Jefferson Hospital for a medical checkup. There, I relived the rape a second time, as it triggered hidden yet vivid memories. I began to piece the events of the night together.

A week after the rape, I gathered enough courage to file a complaint with the police. My complaint was dropped within a day, before the prosecution even looked at my forensic examination report. It took them two months to tell me that I did not have sufficient evidence. “It was just bad sex”, the lawyer told me. I was devastated.

Dean E. had been in contact with me as the new semester began, encouraging me to file a complaint with the school and insisting that the standard of proof, based on “preponderance of evidence”, was much lower than before thanks to the new sexual misconduct rules signed by President Sullivan in July 2011. Although I desperately wanted to move on and to forget all about my traumatic experience, I knew I had to file a complaint in the hope of removing a rapist from our beloved community.

Weeks of investigation conducted by the Office of Vice-President of Student affairs along with interviews with witnesses followed. I later found out through discovery that the entire investigation was skewed as the defense attorney hired by the rapist was monitoring it all along, behind my back.

Dean C., my advisor, constantly repeated “We cannot punish someone for being a jerk”. The investigators tried to make me feel sorry for him by insisting how “sad” he had looked when they interviewed him, and how he “couldn’t sleep” at night because he was so disturbed by my accusations.

This infuriated me. It didn’t matter to them that every day of my life had become a constant struggle. After my rape, it took me two weeks to be able to eat again, and another month to fall asleep at night. Panic attacks plagued me for months. I had forgotten how I was supposed to interact with my friends because nothing seemed important to me anymore. I couldn’t concentrate in classes, and my grades began to suffer.

Even now, nearly a year after the traumatic events, I still have violent nightmares. The only thing that was keeping me in UVA and preventing me from dropping out was my friends.

Finally, four months after the worst day of my life, I was granted a hearing. However, before the hearing, a pre-hearing was to take place. No one had prepared me for it.

On the day before, my advisory, Dean C., told me that both the rapist and I had to present our evidence and that Dean E. would ultimately decide which evidence would be presented to the panel at the hearing.

Dean E., the rapist and I sat together in a small conference room in Peabody Hall. It was the first time I had seen him since the rape. Suddenly, I forgot how to breathe and how to speak and I could barely restrain myself from running out of the room. What had happened before happened once again: he was the dominant figure and I could barely defend myself.

Before I knew it, most of my evidence was deemed “prejudicial” against him and was ruled out as evidence for the hearing. I tried maintaining my composure until I left Peabody Hall, but inside, I felt defeated and defenseless.

The hearing was held in the same room as the pre-hearing, where I sat diagonally across the rapist, just a few feet away from him. I could feel his glare on me every time I spoke, and I could see him smirk the few times I gathered enough courage to glance his way.

I was sworn in on my honor at the beginning of the hearing while the rapist wasn’t. I spent ten hours answering the most invasive and humiliating questions from a panel who questioned every one of my statements.

Had I ever had had “visions” before?

Was I on medication?

Did I say “no” forcefully enough for him to understand?

Did it hurt because it was my first sexual experience?

On the other hand, the rapist’s testimony was barely questioned. No one was interested in the fact that he contradicted himself multiple times during the hearing. No one was surprised by how callous disrespectful and unregretful he sounded. It seemed as though everything he said was taken to be the single truth. None of my witnesses’ statements seemed to bear any weight against his word.

Moreover, my friends and family were forbidden from giving me any form of support during the hearing despite the fact I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of which Dean E. was very well aware.

When Dean E. read out the verdict, I ran out of the room, crying like I had never before, and hid under a desk, wishing I could just die there. My own school, that I loved so much, failed to protect me. I had never felt so betrayed and let down in my life.

The deans said that the hearing was supposed to be “therapeutic” as I faced the rapist. They said that they believed me. They said that UVA was my home and that it loved me. How could they believe me and yet let him go unpunished? How could they expel students for cheating, lying and stealing and let rapists stay among us? How could UVA ever be my home after what it had done to me?

I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. The only reason I pulled myself together and pushed through the semester was out of the little dignity and pride I had left within me.

Today, as I write this, the rapist is still a student here and has been rewarded with a teaching assistant’s position while I have struggled to stay in school and hold my life together. The only reason I am sharing this is because I read Angie Epifano’s account of the way Amherst College treated her rape. She, like me, was raped and Amherst did nothing, even going so far as to try and suppress her from complaining. Angie’s courage has inspired me to share my story.

Even though it might seem scary to share such painful memories, we need to speak up and defend ourselves. Unless we do so, rapists will walk freely and repeat their disgusting actions on other innocent girls, because universities do not have their students’ best interest at heart, as I learned the hard way.

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James R. Marsh
A University of Michigan Law School graduate, James represents victims of campus sexual assault and rape; Title IX violations; sex abuse in schools, colleges, churches, and government and military institutions; online sexual exploitation; child pornography; sextortion, and revenge porn. His case on compensation for victims of child pornography in federal criminal restitution proceedings was recently decided by the United States Supreme Court. That case, United States v. Paroline, led to the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act currently pending in the House and Senate. James founded the nationally recognized Children's Law Center in Washington, DC, and is an experienced trial attorney, and frequent commentator, lecturer, and Huffington Post Blogger. He now leads Marsh Law Firm in New York which is recognized worldwide for its work helping sexually abused survivors obtain justice and rebuild their lives with dignity and respect.

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