January 25, 2007
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer
The arrest this week of a white woman on charges of filing a false rape complaint against an unidentified black man has put two groups already accustomed to prejudice and misconceptions at odds.
On one side are rape victims and their advocates. The advocates cite a litany of reasons victims are already hesitant to report rapes, including fear of not being believed, and insist that arresting someone on charges of falsely reporting a rape deters rape victims from coming forward.
On the other side are members of the African American community who are equally certain that not making an arrest would perpetuate false stereotypes of black men - or, as the Rev. Cornell Lewis put it, the "marauding 300-pound King Kong-type Negro who had deflowered white womanhood."
In the center are the police and prosecutors, who alternately angered and appeased both groups - first by declining to charge the woman, then by reversing course after protests from the African American community, and finally by initially refusing to identify the woman in court papers because of her status as the victim of an alleged rape.
So, as the case against Rosemarie Clark crawls forward, it is not surprising that it has posed some thorny questions for everyone involved: Are you still a victim if you victimize others? How do you weigh the damage done to one group against the damage done to another in a case like this? Should that damage even be taken into account?
For those in the African American community, there is no question that the woman's status as a rape victim is outweighed by the harm she caused when she told police she was raped by a large black man in Bushnell Park two months ago. The woman recanted her story last month, but police say she still maintains she was raped by someone she refuses to name.
"We're not having a victim contest here," said Carrie Saxon Perry, a former mayor of Hartford. "Understanding is different from excusing. Whatever she is, victim or not, this is about race. Because why else would she say a black man did it when she knew that he didn't?"
For those on the other side, the issue is equally clear.
"As a black woman, I know the harm done by racial stereotypes," said Nicole Steward, community relations coordinator for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. "But nobody wins by prosecuting her. The black community doesn't win because we're not addressing the root of the problem, and victims don't win because we're sending them a message that they won't be believed."
"No one is asking members of the black community to turn the other cheek or forget that this has happened, but to engage in a real discourse about it," Steward added. "We have to have a real dialogue, the victim advocates and the black community together. It's bigger than just this one case."
On that point, it seems everyone agrees.
Horror stories that demonstrate the obstacles faced by both groups abound.
There is the infamous case of Susan Smith, the white South Carolina woman who let her car roll into a lake with her two children strapped, asleep, in the back, and told police that the vehicle had been carjacked by a black man who drove off with the children inside.
Or there is the more recent case of the Madison, Wis., woman, identified in the media only as "Patty," who was raped at knifepoint in her bed, reported the rape to police immediately, and was then charged with filing a false report because the detective in charge of the case didn't believe her. DNA evidence later vindicated the victim, forced authorities to dismiss the charges and led to the arrest and conviction of the rapist.
Joanne Archambault, who supervised the San Diego Police Department's sex crimes unit before her retirement in 2002 and now trains other police officers to investigate rape and domestic violence complaints, said false rape reports pose a difficult challenge for every police department.
When she was on the San Diego force, Archambault said, she was initially inclined to charge women who filed false rape reports but was eventually persuaded by counselors at local rape crisis centers not to bring charges unless the false report led to someone being detained.
"They said, `What the public will hear is that another rape victim isn't believed.' And it's true. I've gone to many places to do training where people assume that all sexual assault reports are false," Archambault said. "Rape victims are not believed most of the time, and not just by police."
It is not uncommon for women to lie about some part of their rape experience to police or medical personnel, either, she said, because they fear that they won't be believed if they tell the truth. The victim might not want to identify her real attacker for many reasons, or she might embellish her story because she feels guilty about engaging in risky behavior.
Although Archambault acknowledges that the racial stereotype against black men is both damaging and false - most rapes occur within a victim's own racial group - she does not believe race should be a factor in cases like this.
"If it had been a white guy or anybody else she'd accused, would they have arrested her?" Archambault asked. "It's very disturbing to hear that."
That is the point that Eric Crawford and other black leaders in Hartford keep coming back to. In their eyes, the false claims may not have targeted any one person, but they damaged an entire community.
"What's the difference between a 300-pound black male and a 300-pound white male?" Crawford asks. "The difference is the stereotype. You can't just use a stereotype of minority group to get a pass on committing a crime."
When asked if the black community would have protested as vigorously if the woman had been black and she had lied about being raped by a white man, Crawford and Saxon Perry admitted that the response might have been different.
They still contend, however, that police did the right thing by arresting the woman because she broke the law, wasted valuable time and resources at the police department, and damaged the city's image.
"You can't pick and choose who you're going to arrest when they commit a crime," Crawford said.
Dick Brown, a prominent Hartford criminal lawyer, agreed. Although police do have some discretion out in the field - do you arrest the 16-year-old drinking beer with his buddies, for example, or just call his parents? - those decisions shouldn't be made on the basis of a person's status as a victim, or on the basis of race, Brown said.
"When you don't prosecute cases like this it brings disrespect, as evidenced by the outcry in the black community. They feel there are double standards and they feel there's inequities in the law being enforced," he said. "I'm sure they think if it was a black woman saying a white man did it, the black woman would have been arrested in 60 seconds."
Steward, the advocate for rape victims, took a different view.
"If this was a black woman who accused a white stranger, maybe we'd have a bit more compassion," she said. "I don't know."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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