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Not guilty verdict for ex-College of Charleston student brings more scrutiny to sex assault probes

Nearly four years ago, Paul Heyward Robinson was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow College of Charleston student after a night of drinking.

He was arrested, labeled a rapist and thrown out of the school.

But it took a jury about 28 minutes to acquit Robinson recently; the Columbia-area resident was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

The damage was done, he said. He will never go back to the college.

In his lawyers' eyes, his case illustrates how an intense nationwide focus on sexual assault and harassment, particularly involving college students and celebrities, is breeding ignorance of due process standards. While prosecutors acknowledged shortcomings in the investigation, they said the case instead shows the difficulty of proving such accusations in court despite a victim who was willing to testify.

"It felt like a cloud over my head was lifted," Robinson said of his experience. "Finally, somebody listened to me and believed me."

His lawyers are the latest to call for change in disciplinary measures at the College of Charleston and other schools, though the current presidential administration in Washington has already started a process to do exactly that. Robinson never sued the college, but he has taken his accuser and the police to court.

By one count from The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 180 other accused students nationwide have sued their schools over the process, compared with about 80 victims. The College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina University and Clemson University have been targeted in similar actions statewide that say the schools routinely fail to presume a suspect's innocence.

Mike Robertson, a College of Charleston spokesman, said he could not immediately comment on Robinson's case.

But the victim's attorney, Merritt Farmer of Mount Pleasant, lauded his client for withstanding a barrage of attempts to discredit her since she aired the accusation. The jury never heard some facts that could have aided its decision, he said.

"I am proud that my client stood up and gave a voice for all victims of sexual assault," he said. "She was courageous enough to testify as to the truth."

Prosecutors also stand behind the woman. They still believe her, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.

"We do not take cases to trial simply to give anyone ... their day in court," Wilson said. "All accusations need to be vetted. All victims need to be heard."

'No due process'

Robinson and the woman, now both 31, were looking for a date on Valentine's Day 2014. They connected through OKCupid, an online dating application.

They went to Frankie's Fun Park and sampled beer at a Charleston brewery. They dined on triggerfish and duck, then met friends for more drinks at another restaurant.

Past midnight, the woman went to his apartment, where she got sick.

Robinson would later say that they had consensual sex.

But the woman would tell investigators that after passing out, she woke up to Robinson having sex with her. She hit him and tried to push him off, she said.

A friend picked her up later that morning.

Defense lawyers would contend that the woman's friends made her feel ashamed, pushing her to tell the Charleston Police Department the next day.

But her own lawyers would point to the text message she later sent to him, indicating that their sexual rendezvous was unwanted.

"I’m not okay with what happened," she told him.

When Robinson was arrested a month later, Charleston Detective Jennifer Hall said in an affidavit that he should have known that the victim was too drunk to give consent. He was jailed on a charge of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, which carries up to 10 years in prison.

He posted bail the next day.

His accuser expressed fear that she would encounter him on the downtown campus. Robinson was expelled after a hearing under the federal Title IX law, which aims to maintain a safe atmosphere for such accusers.

In that disciplinary process, officials must be about 51 percent sure of an accused student's guilt before taking such action. Attorneys are not allowed to speak for them.

"They just say, 'We believe this happened,' and kick the student out," said Mark Peper, a Charleston lawyer who defended Robinson along with attorney David Aylor. "There's no due process."

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ordered a feedback process to consider raising that burden of proof, a move that some critics said would favor suspects. New guidelines for schools are expected in the coming months.

Cleveland attorney Kristina Supler has said that her law firm is "incredibly busy" with helping students on both sides of the issue. She is helping a local lawyer challenge the College of Charleston's disciplinary procedures on a different student's behalf.

Supler said the handling of sex crimes involving students is like a pendulum that has swung too far away from schools' past failures to address the problem.

"It went from under-tackling the issue to mismanagement and deprivation of human rights," she said. "It’s a situation where students are left to defend themselves with very few avenues."

'Stress and frustration'

Before Robinson was cleared at trial, he sued his accuser for defamation.

The woman's lawyer, Farmer, fought back and sued Robinson, contending that he was using his lawsuit to intimidate her and thwart the criminal prosecution.

Farmer feared the suit "would negatively affect victims of violent crimes by inhibiting them from seeking help from police."

A judge tossed it out, and the prosecution went on. The victim's counterclaims also continued.

At Robinson's three-day trial in late November, defense attorneys said the police investigator acknowledged never reviewing a medical exam of the victim or interviewing key witnesses before arresting him.

"There were aspects of the investigation that were not as thorough as it could have been," said Assistant Solicitor Drew Evans, who prosecuted the case, "and the detective acknowledged this."

Prosecutors plan to meet with the police to address such shortcomings.

"We did what we could with the facts we had," Wilson said. "We don't give up, even when an investigation is subpar."

Such cases are "inherently difficult" to prove in the first place, Evans said.

The 12 jurors heard testimony from Robinson and his accuser. That they returned from deliberation Nov. 29 in less than a half-hour was a surprise to many. Some thought it meant a guilty verdict.

But after hearing "not guilty," Robinson slumped into his chair.

"My emotions unleashed, and I just cried," he said.

His latest move came Thursday when he sued Charleston police, alleging a shoddy probe. City officials did not immediately comment on the accusations.

The arrest will likely follow Robinson forever, he said.

"Because there are so many accusers coming forward, it heightens the importance of a thorough investigation," Peper said. "While we all want to believe the accuser, there still has to be some objective criteria before you take these steps that can ruin a kid's life."

The civil actions will likely extend the courtroom ordeal for the woman and Robinson. She plans to do her part in fighting them, her attorney said.

"Especially in today's climate of rampant sexual assault," Farmer said, "I am very proud of my client and will be by her side."

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