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Syracuse University student sues: I was kicked out for sex assault I didn't commit

A former Syracuse University student was kicked out of school for a sexual assault he says he didn't commit.

John Noakes, who is black, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit saying a female student, who is white, misidentified him months after the attack in a Marshall Street alley.

He argues in the lawsuit that the school suspended him indefinitely after a rigged process in which he never faced his accuser -- even though he was never charged by police.

Noakes was found responsible for the assault after a Title IX hearing process that is being hotly debated around the country. The federal government recently lightened the pressure on colleges to police non-criminal sexual conduct. Critics say the process used by universities favors accusers; supporters say it keeps colleges safe.

Among the directives issued in 2011 is a clear message that conduct could be considered sexual harassment or assault even if there wasn't enough evidence to charge a crime.

Noakes' lawsuit, filed by Catherine Josh, of Rochester, on Jan. 8, 2018, says the crackdown at SU and other institutions handling other cases went too far.

The school's sexual misconduct policy suggests "Syracuse has adopted a biased, 'victim centered' approach aimed at always believing and supporting the victim without regard to the results of any investigation or adjudicatory process," she wrote.

Students like Noakes are effectively presumed guilty, the lawsuit says, and schools apply the very lowest standard of of proof -- just more than 50 percent of the evidence. That's far lower than the legal standard of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

For its part, SU officials said the university does not comment on pending litigation.

"Syracuse University takes every alleged incident of sexual violence extremely seriously," the school said in a statement. "The University's process to adjudicate sexual assault allegations is fully guided by federal and state law."

The incident

The woman, who was not named in the lawsuit, says she was pulled into the alley next to Breugger's Bagels around 1 a.m. Oct. 25, 2015, according to a police report.

The assailant tried to kiss her, but when the student turned away, he put his hands down her pants and touched her private areas, according to the police report. A witness pulled the woman away. The attacker -- a stranger -- was not caught that night.

Three months later, the woman said she spotted her assailant again. This time, she got a name, according to a follow-up police report. That set in motion a police investigation that led to accusations against Noakes, an undergraduate "CPA-track" student from Florida, according to the lawsuit.

Soon, Noakes had been suspended by SU until a Title IX hearing, the lawsuit states.

Noakes denied being the attacker, saying he wasn't there at the time. But a SU panel determined by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that Naokes was the attacker.

The woman did not want to bring criminal charges and relied on SU to punish her attacker, according to the lawsuit. SU suspended Noakes indefinitely.

Noakes' lawsuit says the process was biased against accused men in favor of women who reported sex abuse. It also accused the college of believing the woman, who is white, over Noakes, who is black.

The lawsuit questions the woman's identification of Noakes, noting that she tied him to the crime after seeing him again three months after the attack.

In both cases, the woman was in the Orange Crate bar, on South Crouse Avenue. The night of the assault, she says the man was staring at her across the bar, then pulled her into the alleyway.

Her description of the assailant was a "dark-skinned black male, approximately 5' 9", heavy set with black dreadlock style hair," according to the police report filed in court documents.

Three months later, she spotted the man she believed to be the same person. She said he walked away when she approached, but two of his companions identified him.

Later, she picked Noakes' face out of a police photo lineup. But she declined to press charges, instead reporting the case to SU.

During a hearing, Noakes pointed to texts and phone messages that he said showed he was talking to friends at the time of the assault.

The woman did not testify herself. A university representative provided her case.

A University Appeals Board found that the evidence against Noakes was credible. Days later, his suspension was upheld.

The board noted that:

1) Both Noakes and the woman were at the same bar on Oct. 25, 2015 and Jan. 24, 2016.

2) That the woman identified Noakes in a photo lineup.

3) That Noakes was "black out drunk" that night and his memory was hazy. (The woman also acknowledged drinking heavily that night, the lawsuit states.)

A 'biased' process?

The panel dismissed Noakes' defense that he was with others at the time. The texts he provided were dismissed because they were not official phone records, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit argues that the photo lineup was faulty because the woman had just spotted Noakes in the bar, whether he was the same man in the attack or not. It describes Naokes as 5 foot, 8 inches and 250 pounds.

An investigator also noted that a witness, who pulled the woman away from the attack, identified Noakes from a Facebook photo. But the lawsuit challenges that identification, noting that it was not from an unbiased photo lineup but from a computer screen that had Noakes' Facebook page pulled up.

And the witness acknowledged that the woman's recollection of the attacker might have been faulty due to intoxication.

"There is definitely a chance she could have pointed out a different person from the person that she was in the alleyway with," she said, according to the lawsuit.

Noakes' lawyer also criticizes SU for not considering what she described as inconsistencies in the woman's statements from one telling to another.

The woman "never appeared before the hearing panel so that the panel could assess her credibility and the investigator made excuses for inconsistencies in Jane Roe's statements," the lawsuit states. "In contrast, John Noakes was found to be not credible because of small inconsistencies in his testimony."

For his part, Noakes told the investigator that he was always with someone else during the night in question.

When asked if he encountered the woman at all, Noakes replied: "Not at all. I've never seen this girl in person," according to the lawsuit.

When pressed about the alleyway, he responded: "I was never in the alleyway. Ever. I have no reason to be there."

His lawsuit demands that he be restored as a student, the removal of negative notations on his transcript, a prohibition against similar disciplinary proceedings and money.

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