O tempora! O Associated Press!

I haven’t been following the St. Paul’s School rape case. Apparently a senior boy told his buddies he’d had sex with a freshman girl when the girl was 15; seducing freshmen seems to have been considered a badge of honor among seniors. He was charged not only with sex with a minor but also with rape; the girl claimed he forced himself on her. He asserted that everything was consensual and stopped short of full intercourse.

The jury convicted him of sex with a minor (a misdemeanor) and using a computer to seduce a minor (weirdly, a felony) but acquitted him of rape.

Rather than lamenting the sexual mores of the rising generation, I want to lament its journalistic standards.

The Washington Post, which in my youth was a newspaper, with reporters and editors, where at least some of the reporters knew something about the topics they covered and at least some of the editors tried to keep obvious falsehoods out of the paper, ran an AP story that included the following sentence:

The jury by its verdict Friday signaled they didn’t believe Labrie’s assertions that he and the girl didn’t have intercourse but also didn’t believe her contention that it was against her will.

No, no, no, no, NO!

The jury “signaled” no such thing. Assuming that the jurors were following instructions, the verdict means that they were unanimously convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the accused penetrated a minor but were not convinced beyond reasonable doubt she had not consented. They could have all gone home saying “Yeah, seems way more likely than not that he forced her, but in a swearing contest it’s hard to be morally certain.” (Of course it’s also possible that the verdict was a compromise among conflicting jurors, which is against the rules but isn’t unknown.)

The more I think about this, the angrier I get. The victim, having been victimized once by the older boy and again by the criminal justice process, now suffers a gratuitous third victimization from the AP and the WaPo, which proclaim to the entire word, indelibly, that a jury found her to be a liar, when in fact it did not.

It seems implausible that there will be a retraction – not that it would do much good – and impossible that she can successfully sue for damages, since for this purpose she’s a “public figure” under the precedent in N.Y. Times v. Sullivan.. Why should reporters, editors, and publishers be allowed to negligently damage people by failing to do their job up to professional standards of competence, and escape scott-free? Note that this isn’t a matter of opinion; what the story says about the meaning of a “not guilty” verdict is simply wrong.

Apparently the strongest evidence against the accused was his own post-incident boasting to his classmates. He and his lawyer had to claim at trial that the boy was bragging about molesting an underage girl but hadn’t actually done so. Who knows? It might even be true. But it isn’t hard to see how the jury could dismiss that claim as far-fetched while remaining in some doubt on the consent question.  

The whole thing – more carefully described in this New York Times story – makes me wonder just how far New Hampshire law allows an eighteen-year-old to go with a fifteen-year old. And, as always, I wonder what a just sentence would look like for what the defendant was convicted of doing, rather than for the even worse thing he may well have actually done.