VAWA’s Sleeper Definition will Imprison the Innocent, Harm Victims

Stop Abusive and Violent Environments
November 15, 2012

Earlier this week the Washington Post ran an editorial highlighting the plight of Jonathan Montgomery, 26, wrongfully convicted in 2008 of molesting Elizabeth Paige Coast (1).

Even though there were no witnesses or objective proof, Mr. Montgomery was sentenced to 7½ years in prison.

Last month Ms. Coast of Hampton, Va. recanted. She made up the accusation to deflect her parents’ anger when they caught her visiting pornographic sites on the internet.

On Friday, Circuit Judge Randolph T. West reversed the convictions and ordered Montgomery be released.

Innocence Lost

Was the Montgomery case a fluke, an isolated example of an over-zealous prosecutor?

Law professor Richard Klein says “no.” (2) He notes that in many sexual assault cases, “the defendant may well have the burden of proof.” Klein charges, “It is the very essence of prejudice for juries to make emotionally-based decisions which may not have been founded on hard, real, and relevant evidence.”

That’s what happened in the Jonathan Montgomery case. Indeed in sex cases, the presumption of innocence now appears to play little meaningful role (3).

VAWA’s Sleeper Definition

The Washington Post termed the continued detention of Mr. Montgomery a “travesty.” But a provision tucked into the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization would make the situation far worse.

S. 1925 and H.R. 4970 both include this new definition:

“The term ‘sexual assault’ means any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”

Think about it. If a person is accused under the new definition, the burden will be placed on him to prove the woman’s consent.

This definitional change will result in many more innocent men being convicted and sent to prison, possibly for life.

Victims Harmed

At the University of North Florida, three false-rape cases have occurred in the past year. It’s reached the point that campus police now require false accusers to reimburse the school for investigational expenses.

False accusations have become so widespread that victim advocacy groups, judges, prosecutors, columnists, and others now agree that rape victims are being robbed of services, protections, and ultimately credibility (4).

Under our watch, the presumption of innocence has been allowed to be battered and bruised. Isn’t it time to restore the presumption of innocence to our nation’s criminal justice system?



2. Klein R. An Analysis of Thirty-Five Years of Rape Reform. 41 Akron Law Review 981 (2008)