What happened to Ashley Todd?

No one knows. So using her story as a political bludgeon is pretty low-rent.

A 20-year-old female McCain volunteer from Texas, working in Pittsburgh, reports that she had her cheek marked with a B by the knife of a 6’4″ 200-llb “dark-skinned” African-American mugger about 9 pm last evening. The reported incident happened at an ATM. The victim reports having been robbed of $60, and then – after the mugger was enraged by spotting the McCain bumper sticker on her car – kicked, punched, knocked down, and knife-marked. A picture of the victim – provenance unknown – shows the B on her cheek and a black eye.

The incident has several unusual features:

– It was first reported, in highly inflammatory language (“maimed”) by a TV station affiliated with Richard Mellon Scaife’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

– In early stories, a police spokeswoman is quoted as stating the details of the complaint as fact. CNN today quotes the same spokeswoman as saying that the police have not yet been able to substantiate the victim’s account.

Drudge links to the story, which shows the photo, identified as coming from Drudge. Drudge uses the word “mutilated” to describe what happened to the woman, which appears to be a quote from the Scaife story, but it it is it no longer appears there.

– The McCain campaign isn’t commenting for the record, out of “respect.” But it confirms that John McCain and Sarah Palin are both reported as having called the victim. Behind the scenes, McCain’s spinners are reportedly pushing the story hard.

– The B shows up either reversed or upside-down.

– The B is smooth and even, and appears to have been made without breaking the skin. That’s pretty fancy knifework to do leaning over your victim, after dark.

– The victim refused medical attention.

– More than 24 hours after the reported crime, the police have not released a sketch of the assailant.

The victim’s Twitters just before 9pm Wednesday seem to set up the scenario nicely. The Twitter account is now behind a privacy screen.

Maybe Michelle Malkin is moving too fast in saying that the story has “shades of … Tawana Brawley all over it,” but certainly caution seems to be in order. The McCain flacks who are pushing this before they know what’s there, and people like John Hinderaker who use an incident that perhaps never happened as “symbolic” of the Obama campaign, are acting disgracefully.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com