Two Vanderbilt University football players offered some appalling defenses in their rape case, which a Nashville, Tennessee, jury quickly and soundly rejected. What does this case tell us about the state of campus sexual assault?
First, what she knew
A college woman (name withheld) met up with a young man she’d dated off and on for a few weeks, former Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vandenburg, at a bar. She said she had three drinks with him, then he gave her a fourth — a blue drink. She remembers nothing after she consumed it; then she passed out, entirely unconscious.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in Vandenburg’s dorm room the next morning, feeling nauseous and with bruises and a gash on her knee. He told her she’d been sick all night and he’d taken care of her. She apologized to him.
In light of what was learned later, only a sociopath would accept such an apology.
Truth caught on tape
A few days later, a dorm surveillance camera revealed Vandenburg and three other Vanderbilt football players — Corey Batey, Brandon E. Banks and Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie — carrying the woman’s unconscious body into his dorm room that night. Upon discovering this footage, Vanderbilt University officials contacted the police.
Cell phone video and audio taken by the young men inside his dorm room revealed horrifying scenes of oral, vaginal and anal rape by the four young men. The men also hit her and urinated on her. Afterwards they tried to delete the digital evidence and sent each other incriminating text messages.
Were it not for the appalling videos the defendants created and sent during the sexual assault, the case against them may have been impossible to prove. The victim remembered nothing of the incident itself. The young men covered for each other.
But with the photographic evidence, the defendants were left to argue little but legally weak and morally repulsive defenses in the courtroom.
1. “But we were drunk”
At trial, the defense argued that the young men should not be responsible for their acts of sexual assault because they were drunk. The jury properly rejected this claim.
Voluntary intoxication is rarely an effective legal defense, because we hold people responsible for their own choices to drink, even drink excessively. And the evidence was that while intoxicated, the defendants nevertheless were well aware of what they were doing.
2. “But everyone does it”
College has a culture of promiscuity, the defendants also argued. This too was soundly rejected, as it should have been. A “culture defense” is no defense whatsoever. I hear this often in my cases: “sexual harassment in the securities industry? But everyone does it!” The law offers no exceptions to defendants who break the law alongside plenty of others who do it too. This is nothing but an excuse.
And promiscuity – sexual freedom – is the opposite of rape – sexual powerlessness. One has nothing to do with the other. In this case, we’re talking about a (probably drugged) young woman who was entirely unconscious. Sexual choices she may have made at other times are entirely irrelevant.
3. “But I didn’t touch her”
Finally, Vandenburg was convicted of rape even though he did not physically violate the victim, because he aided the others by carrying her unconscious body into the room and eagerly encouraged them to assault her. Under Tennessee law, this renders him criminally responsible for rape just as if he’d assaulted her himself. This sends a powerful message to anyone who aids and abets others in an act of rape: you’re just as guilty.
Two of the four young men, Vandenburg and Batey, were tried first. Now that they’ve been swiftly convicted – the jury was out for just three hours – the remaining two men will be tried next. They will likely be convicted as well, based on the same evidence.
Vanderbilt University reports incident and supports victim
I commend Vanderbilt University for reporting this incident after discovering the CCTV footage, expelling the young men after their internal investigation found them guilty, and supporting the victim as she sought justice.
This is a far cry from so many other universities that have appeared more interested in protecting their brand than their female students, as the new Sundance film The Hunting Ground documents.
The victim in this case is said to have testified bravely and confidently. After the verdict, she said to other sexual violence victims, “You are not alone. You are not to blame.” And for once, the legal system backed her up.
The Bloom Firm Updates
Upcoming Speaking Event: Free Admission
On Tuesday, 2/3/15, at 7:30 PM PT, Lisa Bloom will be delivering a bold new speech at the Hammer Museum about why we see injustice after injustice in cases where unarmed African Americans are killed by police or vigilantes. This is a free event, open to all that will be in Los Angeles, CA at that time. If you are not based in California, you can watch the live-stream of Lisa’s speech above.
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New Art Shines on the Bloom Firm Walls
Lisa Bloom and Braden Pollock collect original art from their travels all over the world. This large oil on canvas is by an Ethiopian artist named Michael Solomon, and is now up in our large conference room. We love its modern vibrance and pride in local life in Addis Ababa.