How do you distinguish a credible accusation from a false one? That question is constantly in the news.
It was raised recently by reports on Bridget Marks, the ex-Playboy model who lost custody of her twin daughters because she coached them to testify that their estranged father was a child molester. A false accusation naturally raises the level of skepticism with which we view anyone who claims victimhood. But the public's increasing tendency to routinely dismiss the claims of alleged victims can be a cruel way for public opinion to approach heartbreaking stories of abuse.
For decades, our culture has been accused of celebrating and rewarding "victims," inspiring a "cult of victimhood" that demanded little evidence before extending sympathy. Today, the benefit of the doubt in public opinion as well as in the legal system seems to be shifting away from the victim and toward the accused. According to reported findings of the June 4 American Journal of Public Health, for example, family courts in Massachusetts are already minimizing the relevance of domestic abuse accusations in cases of child custody because such accusations are now commonly viewed as "a tactic in divorce litigation."
The accused deserves a legal presumption of innocence, and courts properly decide every case on the details of its merits. The average person, however, doesn't have the court's luxury of time and access to information in order to reach a judgment. Fortunately, some common sense guidelines can be applied to the flood of news stories about alleged victims. The guidelines don't prove guilt or innocence but they can help people decide for themselves whether to extend the benefit of doubt to the accuser or to the accused.
1. Is the alleged victim seeking simple justice, or are there potential benefits far over and above justice being sought? The benefits could include money (beyond reasonable compensation), child custody, revenge, media attention, or political leverage.
In Michael Jackson's criminal case for alleged child molestation, for example, any subsequent action in civil court might result in a huge financial settlement. Accusations should be assessed in the shadow of such possible benefits.
2. Is the accusation supported by political organizations that use the exposure to argue for a specific position?
Consider the 2001 case of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who confessed to murdering her five young children. During her trial, the Texas branch of the National Organization for Women (NOW) campaigned vigorously to influence the court on Yates' behalf, declaring her to be a victim as well. The national NOW used Yates to promote a particular theory of the prevalence and impact of postpartum depression, a theory that remains medically controversial.
Whenever it is necessary to push through politics or medical controversy to get to the facts, skepticism should increase.
3. Are the accusations directed at individuals or at a category of people?
Accusations of rape were recently lodged against nine athletes who attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. The accusations quickly became a podium from which all athletes at CU-- and athletes in general-- were accused of having a "sense of entitlement toward women." Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, became popular on the media circuit.
Remember: categories do not commit crimes; individuals do. Be suspicious of cases in which the accused individual is being convicted in public opinion because of the category to which he or she belongs.
4. Are the authorities proceeding with prosecution? In the University of Colorado case, the attorney general declined to file criminal charges against any of the accused, basing his decision partly on DNA evidence. Whenever authorities refuse to prosecute, you should suspect that the evidence supporting the accusation is shaky. This is especially true of high-profile cases in which such a refusal will be closely examined and criticized.
5. What do non-involved legal authorities say? Don't listen to the representatives of a defendant or an accuser. They are trying their case in the court of public opinion. Listen instead to nonpartisan legal authorities and, if those sources strongly disagree, you should conclude that the case is far from clear.
6. Do those who raise questions about a case receive ad hominems in return? In the Kobe Bryant rape trial, his legal team has argued for the admission of limited sexual history, which allegedly proves that the accuser had sexual relations with another man shortly after Bryant. If true, such evidence bears directly on the credibility of physical evidence being used to prove rape.
Those who agree with the admission of such evidence are sometimes accused of trying to return to the 1950's when rape victims were eviscerated on the basis of "past history." When an argument that is not absurd elicits insults, it is time to wonder whether no better response is possible.
Cameras have moved into courtrooms; the line between trials and press conferences is blurring. But, at their root, court trials should be about justice, not entertainment or politics. Like it or not, your opinion of court cases has become part of the process of justice. The preceding guidelines may allow you to make a judgment based more on facts and less on rhetoric.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.