The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
February 3, 2012
Tales of sexual violence have been plastered across front pages around the world. Last year, it was Dominique Strauss-Kahn the French politician cleared of an accusation of sexual assault. Now it’s the Penn State sex scandal and cover-up. A National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 1 in 3 women and 4 in 1 men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.
With this politically charged backdrop, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to review a controversial Superior Court ruling overturning the convictions of three men accused of sexually assaulting a female student at West Chester University.
In 2009, the three men had come to visit a friend at West Chester and ended up staying the night in the dorm room of the victim. The victim said the men restrained her and "took turns" vaginally and orally raping her.
The attack began at about 4:30 a.m. and continued for over an hour. "I didn't know them, and I didn't ever want to have sex with them," the victim said during the preliminary hearing. "It was forced. I didn't have any option."
All three men were found guilty of sexual assault, indecent assault and false imprisonment. They were all acquitted on more serious charges of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and criminal conspiracy. Each received a sentence of two to four years in a state correctional facility and will be required to register as sex offenders when they are released.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court issued an unpublished memorandum opinion. An unpublished memorandum decision cannot be relied upon or cited by a Court or a party in any other proceeding. After reviewing the court record, the Superior Court found it was "manifestly unreasonable" to assume that the alleged female victim had not given her consent to the men's sexual advances. The court found the victim had neither protested sufficiently nor suffered serious enough injuries.
Former Chester County District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll called the decision "the worst legal reasoning I have ever seen in an appellate court opinion."
Len Sosnov, a Widener University law professor, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the panel's ruling was "extremely rare." "Courts are generally extremely reluctant to disturb a verdict," he said, explaining that judging credibility is considered the domain of a jury.
The law in Pennsylvania permits appellate courts to overturn cases where a jury's decision appears "shockingly like an innocent person has been convicted," Sosnov told the Inquirer. If the Supreme Court agrees with the Superior Court decision, the three men will be entitled to a new trial.
A careful and deliberate review of this case is paramount. The Strauss-Kahn debacle; the media frenzy surrounding Penn State University; and now challenges to the very statistics that portray the pervasiveness of sexual violence demand it.
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