Sweeping rape under the rug

Rape and Its Consequences: Second in a series

Over the past 25 years, more than 100 SMU students reported they were sexually assaulted. Yet, in only one case – the three men who raped Monika Korra in 2009 – were the suspects successfully prosecuted.

They were not SMU students. For every suspect who is, SMU relies on a system of secret hearings using rules not found in any courtroom, and the maximum penalty is expulsion.

“I don’t think there should be a carte blanche for a man or a woman to commit a violation of the state’s laws on campus and therefore have one free pass,” Erin Hendricks, the lead prosecutor in Korra’s case, said. “Why are we going to short-circuit the process and avoid consequences for a person who has potentially committed such a serious crime?”

SMU officials say the internal system works well, though they refused to provide any statistics or other documented information to support their claim.

“It’s very effective,” SMU Police Chief Richard Shafer said. “It has helped people heal.”

However, the only two cases that have come to light over the past 25 years suggest otherwise. The most recent one – a 2006 rape case – prompted a multi-million dollar lawsuit against SMU. University officials agreed to a settlement that they refuse to discuss.

The other one ignited a firestorm of controversy, not only in Dallas but nationally. A secret panel found a SMU student guilty of sexually assaulting another student in 1990 only to have a second judicial panel – and the president of SMU -overrule that decision in 1991.

Attorney Reed Prospere, who represented the victim and has almost four decades of experience as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, remains deeply troubled by the outcome of the 1990 case.

“It’s as big an injustice institutionally as I’ve seen,” Prospere said. “How it’s a system to get to the truth is beyond me.”

According to the SMU Student Handbook, sexual assault charges are best handled by secret judicial panels whose goal is educational – “not an adversarial process of antagonists striving to best one another.”

Dr. Evelyn Ashley, the SMU official responsible for overseeing these panels, said it’s difficult to explain how a non-adversarial approach is realistic in handling rape cases.

“The system is not designed to be adversarial,” Ashley said. “That’s hard for me to speak to because every two students are going to be different.”

Hendricks, who spent eight years in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office prosecuting rape cases, sees flaws in SMU’s system.

“Tell me what part of sexual assault is non-adversarial,” Hendricks, a graduate of SMU’s Dedman School of Law, said. “Tell me what part of a woman being subjected to a nonconsensual sexual encounter is not in and of itself adversarial. And then I might be able to better understand why the non-adversarial nature of the judicial council benefits a victim.”

 

What SMU rape reports show

On Dec. 5, 2009, three men kidnapped Korra as she was leaving an East Dallas party and gang-raped her. Because it occurred off-campus, the Dallas Police Department conducted the investigation. Its efforts, Korra’s determination to press charges and the work of Hendricks and other prosecutors provided Korra with justice unknown to other SMU rape victims: She got to see the men who raped her go to prison. She later told The Daily Campus this was central to her healing process.

“That was my goal: to find them, to make sure they would be locked up and never would be able to do that to anyone ever again,” Korra said.

Hendricks said SMU “supported Monika from start to finish.”

Shafer said that since he joined the force in 1999, Korra’s was the only sexual assault case where suspects were successfully prosecuted that he could recall.

It’s also one of the few where the suspects were not students.

Rape on college campuses is a national problem. A study funded by the U.S. Justice Department found that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college.

Cathey Soutter, SMU’s director of counseling and psychiatric services, has been counseling sexual assault victims on campus for more than two decades.

“On any given year I may have seven in a semester, I might have 15,” she said.

Over the past six years, at least 40 sexual assaults were reported to SMU officials including 13 in 2006.

SMU released little or no information about these cases. Using crime alerts, lawsuits, and crime logs, The Daily Campus assembled information about 24 of these reported rapes, all of which were reported to police:

  • Seventeen – or two-thirds – were committed by SMU students.
  • Seventeen took place on campus – 10 in dormitories and seven in fraternity houses including three at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house (August 2008, October 2008 and January 2011).
  • SMU police did not provide a description of the student suspect in 13 of 17 cases.

If SMU arrests a student for violating drug, alcohol or weapons laws, the university puts these figures on its website along with the number of cases referred to judicial panels. Yet officials refuse to do the same for sexual assault cases. When asked why, Ashley, SMU’s assistant dean of student life and director of student conduct and community standards, said, “There could be a panel, but some of that is handled administratively so there’s a difference between an administrative hearing and a hearing where there is a panel.”

Records show SMU routinely publicizes descriptions of non-student suspects in sexual assault cases but seldom does so when the suspect is a student.

Shafer said no description is necessary in an “acquaintance rape” because the victim and police know the identity of the alleged rapist.

“We want to tell you where it happened, when it happened – not everything about it,” he said. “We’re not trying to put a picture out there.”

 

How SMU secret panels handled two cases

On April 30, 1991, The Daily Campus published two stories that broke the iron secrecy of SMU’s judicial system. One
said a panel of three students, one faculty member and one administrator found a student guilty of rape in 1990. The other questioned the effectiveness of using secret panels to decide rape cases. The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times followed with their own stories.

Meanwhile, the student appealed to a second panel (three SMU students, two administrators, two faculty members). They refused to allow the victim to testify at the appeals hearing, according to Prospere, her attorney. They found the student not guilty, a decision upheld by the late A. Kenneth Pye, the SMU president.

The decision left Norm Kinne, then the No. 2 official in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, dumbfounded. As he told The Daily Campus in 1991, “Universities are not in a position to deal with crime. It is a matter to be dealt with by the courts. It is totally outside their jurisdiction.”

Then, as now, SMU officials said their system represents a win-win situation for both sides. Shafer said victims “are able to tell what happened to them, voice what happened to them.”

Prospere, a SMU Law School graduate who spent eight years as a prosecutor in the Dallas district attorney’s office, said the outcome of the 1990 case left his client feeling despondent particularly since she was not even allowed to testify at the appeals hearing.

“You’re shocked, surprised, and hurt if you participated, but compound that if you weren’t allowed to participate in the process,” Prospere said. “How can that be fair?”

It would be 15 years before another rape case in SMU’s secret judicial system came to light.

This time, a former student sued SMU after a panel found him guilty of sexually assaulting a student in January 2006. The lawsuit said university officials failed to provide him with a fair and impartial hearing – as required by the SMU Student Handbook-because they:

  • Gave him just eight days to prepare for an April 28 hearing on three-month-old sexual assault charges.
  • Allowed Soutter to testify the accuser had been “drugged” though Soutter was not placed under oath, no medical evidence supported the claim and the panel chair had ruled drugs could not be discussed. (Soutter told The Daily Campus she cannot comment on the hearing.)
  • Permitted SMU Judicial Affairs Coordinator Susan Ratz-Thomas, who was supposed to act as a mediator, to deliver a closing argument in which she said “I believe” the accuser and called the defendant a “rapist.” (Ratz-Thomas, who no longer works at SMU, told The Daily Campus she could not comment on the hearing.

The lawsuit said the panel found the student guilty of sexual assault and expelled him. He appealed. A few weeks later, the student received a letter from Dean of Student Life Dee Siscoe’s office that was signed by Ratz-Thomas. It said there were “significant procedural irregularities that denied the accused a fair hearing” and that the evidence presented at the hearing “was clearly insufficient to support the charge,” according to the lawsuit. Instead of expulsion, the student was suspended.

The former student sued SMU in June 2007. That same month, Ratz-Thomas left SMU. The case was settled in September 2008. That same month, Lisa Webb replaced Siscoe as dean of student life.

John McElhaney, who represented SMU in the case, said he was not at liberty to discuss the lawsuit or the settlement.

Michael P. Kelly, who represented the former student, told The Daily Campus his client felt very good about the lawsuit because it finally allowed his voice to be heard regarding the fundamental lack of fairness in SMU’s handling of the judicial hearing.

Map sources: SMU crime alerts, SMU PD crime logs and related lawsuits

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