Op-Ed: A false accusation off-campus
As I described in part in “Until proven guilty,” an article I wrote for The Cavalier Daily last year, I had just completed the most significant project for my History and Civilization of Classical India class half an hour before lecture started. When I got to the classroom, instead of turning in my assignment and taking some time to find a good seat in lecture, I found a University police officer talking to my professor. I overheard my professor explain to him who I was, what I looked like and where I usually sat in the classroom.
I would soon discover that there was a second officer waiting for me outside my classroom as well, and they both escorted me out of Wilson Hall as students looked on in confusion. I sent a text to a friend to inform another teacher of mine that I would not be able to make it to class. I also managed to quickly send a text to my mother explaining that I was being taken by the police.
I was arrested on Oct. 3, 2013 after 3:30 p.m. in the parking lot by Wilson Hall. According to the charges, I was accused of felony abduction with intent to defile and felony rape of my ex-girlfriend sometime between March 1 and June 1, 2012 in Fairfax County. At that moment, I faced the harrowing possibility of two life sentences for a crime I did not commit. Once in jail, I received a letter from Dean of Students Allen Groves, from which I learned that, in conjunction with the criminal charges, I was also put on an interim suspension and faced charges through the University Judiciary Committee, even though the University had contact neither with the complainant — who has never been enrolled at U.Va. — nor the Fairfax County police. I also apparently had 48 hours to appeal the interim suspension upon notification of my status, which seemed impossible to do from my jail cell and especially since my bail was not guaranteed.
After being held in the local jail, I was transported in chains to a detention center in Fairfax County to be arraigned by a state judge. My attorney rebutted the presumption against release by showing that I was not a flight risk nor a danger to the community. I was subsequently released on bail on Oct. 8 after spending five nights and six days in jail. However, according to Dean Groves, I was still not allowed to return to Grounds despite the judge’s determination.
As the legal case proceeded, there was no way of predicting when it would end, and I dreaded the idea of losing an entire year of school — or more — due to a false accusation. I tried to appeal my interim suspension on Nov. 12, 2013 at 1 p.m. Without a lawyer or professional representing me at the appeal — which was allowed but for me not feasible logistically — I put forth a plethora of evidence that included tens of thousands of text messages from the complainant, the fact that I passed a polygraph test, eight character references and six witnesses. I emphasized that a state judge had already evaluated my case and released me on bail deciding that I was neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community. I emphasized that at no point did the state judge determine that it was not suitable for me to continue my education. Does the University hold superior authority over a state judge who has had a chance to evaluate my case?
At my University appeal hearing, even though Dean Groves said I provided a compelling case, he, Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Lampkin and Associate Dean of Students Susan Davis stated that no decision would be made — while Lampkin and Groves said they would wait until the preliminary hearing, Davis told me to contact her when I knew what information the prosecution would have against me, though she does not recall doing so. The discovery phase in which we could obtain evidence from the prosecution had not happened yet. Dean Groves explained that there must have been some sort of evidence brought against me, or else why would serious charges be filed? He even mentioned that false accusations are “statistically rare,” suggesting his own bias in the direction of my case despite the information I had just presented.
I called Davis two days after the appeal hearing once I found out the results of discovery and disclosed what was given to us by the prosecution. Breaking from what she had said earlier, Davis told me the administrators would defer their decision until I disclosed the results of my probable cause hearing.
At that point, innocent in the eyes of the law, how much more information did the University need in order to make a decision on my interim suspension? According to Dean Groves’ letter, I had 48 hours to appeal my suspension upon notification of my status. I was in jail for a total of five nights and six days and had no way of contacting the University from my jail cell. Even if I could have petitioned to appeal my interim suspension within that timeframe, the same questions about the prosecution’s evidence could come up. The expectations of what would have revoked my suspension were unclear. The letter never determined that I had to disclose my legal case step-by-step as it unfolded nor did it require me to procure whatever information the prosecution may be working on. The University never gave me a definite “no” or “yes” regarding the suspension and after excusing the lack of decision based on the results of discovery, the decision of the three University administrators would then rely on the results of the probable cause hearing, and their decision could have easily been further delayed into waiting for a decision by the Grand Jury, and then to the tedious trial phase. What would have made them make a decision?
On Nov. 15, 2013, in the face of the same evidence I provided at my University appeal hearing, the prosecution decided to drop the charges at my probable cause hearing, which, according to The New York Times, is an incredibly rare conclusion to any criminal proceeding, considering that most cases end with some sort of plea bargain. Without objection from the prosecution, the charges were subsequently expunged from my record. The University lifted the interim suspension that had been placed on me as a result on Nov. 18, three days later, and UJC charges were dropped on Nov. 20. I am grateful that they have since agreed to reimburse my tuition, but on top of financial and personal trauma that I have sustained from the whole ordeal, my academic career was derailed. I was forced to miss weeks of classes and was not able to salvage any credits for that semester.
University disciplinary systems are horribly misunderstood, and awareness of their capabilities and limitations is important. According to Title IX regulations on sexual assault, the purpose of university disciplinary systems is to provide civil rights remedies and to promote education, not criminal justice. If complainants choose to pursue their cases through the university system, they must come to terms with the fact that justice is not the ultimate goal but that they are taking what I would call a restorative approach to process their complaint. Title IX is intended to prevent the abridgment of a student’s fundamental right to an education but Title IX is not meant to be a secondary iteration of our judicial system.
Recently, as far as I can see, there have been demands to frame the university disciplinary system as an alternative avenue for justice. I personally do not even think university disciplinary systems should adjudicate these serious cases, but if their involvement is required by Title IX, my experience can at least provide some directions in which university disciplinary systems can better address accusations of sexual misconduct.
First and foremost, the fact that what was said at the appeal hearing was not recorded in any capacity is troubling. This makes reevaluating what transpired incredibly challenging, since it is essentially the word of three administrators against mine. At the present moment, the triumvirate contest the number of text messages I produced at the appeal hearing, whether I mentioned the polygraph test and whether I brought up the fact that a state judge made no comment on my education, and Davis disputes whether I provided evidence to her over the phone. I am fortunate and thankful that the U.Va. administration has been forthcoming about what has happened, but it is disturbing that there is no accountability on the administrators or even the person appealing the suspension. The fact that none of the content from the meeting was recorded means it is impossible for anyone to look back on it, reflect on it and learn from it. At this point, it is just an insignificant footnote in U.Va. administrative history.
In my case, the difficulty was that the complainant was off-campus. Dean Groves informed me that had my accuser been a student of our University, she could have been brought up on Honor charges. Since she is not an U.Va. student, she has no accountability whatsoever. Anyone should be held accountable if their complaint is proven false to the acceptable standard of proof; further, they should be given an educational sanction if that is the case. This sanction could possibly be suspension, expulsion or have some sort of mandatory educational component. At the moment, some universities have versions of “bad faith accusation” clauses to help balance these issues internally, but that does not seem to be a uniform idea across the board, demonstrated by the fact that I cannot get a straight answer as to whether I can pursue any sort of recourse at my accuser’s university, yet her accusation was able to compel University administrators to suspend me without investigating the specific matter for themselves.
How can the University fairly evaluate a case in any circumstance if a complaining witness is not even part of the University community? Universities, as educational institutions, do not have the ability to subpoena witnesses, nor do they have the human or material resources to meticulously investigate these kinds of issues. Having an external complainant further complicates that. Title IX and universities have important obligations to protect students, which is why the abolishment of these university disciplinary systems is unlikely, but if universities currently have the right to adjudicate cases that involve external complainants, then anyone at any university should have the right to file a complaint at any school despite the offense, regardless of that person’s affiliation with that school. There is no consistency in schools’ policies since it is evident that someone outside of U.Va. can make a complaint on a student within the University community and not be held accountable for showing up to trial or cooperating with University investigators. Yet, this does not seem to be true at every University in the United States. There is also no recourse for me against this bad faith accusation, since my complainant’s university makes it very challenging for me to bring forth a complaint. Title IX and university disciplinary systems are intended to support the right to an education for all their students, but in my case they did just the opposite, undermining my rights by ruling against me before my case had come to court and denying my right to a place in our community and an education.
In my last piece, written seven months before the publication of the Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” I pointed out the lack of depth in University policies by stating that the University is still unclear on how to handle these cases, and I am very thankful that recently certain administrators have been willing to work with me to discuss policy. I remain optimistic that change at the national university level, not just at the University of Virginia, can be made for the better.
The struggles victims of sexual assault and false accusations endure are not mutually exclusive. This is not about the challenges of any one victim. This is about understanding the reality of the systems available and the maintenance of an attitude that is supportive to victims on both sides of the equation. I deserved a fair evaluation from the University with clear and transparent expectations. Unfortunately, that was not the case and the damages I have sustained cannot be undone — but I wish to amend the system in a way in which recourse can be pursued to counteract claims made in bad faith while emphasizing the realities of how the system is expected to handle these situations.
This may have been the most arduous period of my life, but I have faith that my experience can provide insight on how to frame University response policies in an evenhanded manner that provides fairness for all.
Read more at: http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2015/03/zheng-a-false-accusation-off-campus