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Dealing With False Accusations of Sexual Assault

One of the worst experiences my clients’ have ever had in their lives has been being falsely accused of sexual assault.  It is one thing to be falsely accused of a crime, it is quite another thing to deal with the social embarrassment of being falsely accused of sexual assault, particularly child sexual assault.  Yet it happens far more often than most Americans realize.  Because it is very difficult to accurately estimate the number of rape allegations proven to be false because of a variety of factors including when there is not physical evidence available, studies range wildly in estimating that between 1.5 to 90 percent of rape allegations are false.[1]   Similarly, other studies provide similar wide-ranging estimates that between six (6) and 35 percentage of child sexual assault allegations are false.[2]  Unfortunately, there is no way to know how often false allegations of sexual assault happen; yet because virtually every study acknowledges that false allegations of sexual assault happen, it is critical to make sure in every case that innocent people do not suffer life-changing consequences for being convicted of a sexual offense they did not commit. 

            Below I will describe several reasons that experts agree have led to proven false allegations of sexual assault and ultimately provide suggestions that may be helpful to those who are falsely accused of sexual assault.  What I am writing below is not intended to be legal advice because each case is different, and no lawyer can give good legal advice without knowing the facts of the specific case.  Therefore, someone who is falsely accused of sexual assault should meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as they are able to in order to better understand their rights and options to defend themselves.

Because many people who claim to have been sexually assaulted, whether as adult or children, do tell the truth, it is difficult for the average member of the public to understand reasons why someone would lie about sexual assault, or why problems with human memory could cause someone to falsely accuse an innocent person of sexual abuse. 

Yet there are numerous documented cases where a parent has made a false allegation of child sexual abuse involving his or her spouse during a divorce dispute to win child placement and additional custody.[3]  In these cases, the truth may not always come out because young children are particularly vulnerable to believe that they were abused, even when they were not, when someone, including a parent or police officer, either intentionally or unintentionally suggests to the child that he or she was sexually abused while speaking with the child.[4]   

Tragically, there are also actual victims of sexual assault who, because of the traumatic nature of the incident, problems with their memory, and oftentimes unintentional, suggestive techniques used by an interviewer, falsely accuse an innocent person of sexual assault.  For example, in 1984, a highly intelligent college student, and former Homecoming Queen named Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man she identified as Ronald Cotton.[5]  At the time, Ronald was a 22 year old young man who came from a big, loving family and had made some mistakes growing up but was trying to get his life together.[6]   During the assault, Jennifer carefully studied every facial feature of her attacker she could and told police she was 100 percent sure Ronald was the person who had raped her after viewing a lineup of possible suspects.[7] After hearing Jennifer’s story, the jury convicted Ronald because they believed that Jennifer was telling the truth.[8]   Over 10 years after Ronald Cotton began his 54 year prison sentence, a DNA test changed everything: it proved that Ronald had been telling the truth and that without scientific evidence, he may have spent nearly his rest of his life in prison for a rape he did not commit.[9] 

Sadly, DNA has proven that human memory problems, particularly mistaken identification of the perpetrator of a crime, are one of the leading causes of false allegations of sexual assault;[10] yet research shows that people falsely accuse others of sexual assault for many other reasons that are not always easily understood, or easy to prove.  One study examining 57 cases of proven false sexual assault claims based on formation provided by the Dutch National Police showed that there were many reasons why someone falsely accused another person of sexual assault, including financial gain, emotional gain, disturbed mental state, covering up bad behavior such as adultery, and, surprisingly, in 20 percent of cases for reasons that the accuser simply could not explain.[11]  By no means does this suggest that every person who alleges that they have been sexually abused is lying or is mistaken or that society should not show empathy and respect for those who may be a victim of a highly traumatic and very serious crime; but it does explain why the Founding Fathers believed so strongly in the presumption of innocence: if our system of justice fails to protect those who are innocent by convicting someone based on assumptions and stereotypes rather than proof, it calls into question our entire system of justice.  As President John Adams explained during his opening statement in the Boston Massacre trials, if the United States of America does not protect the innocent from wrongful convictions, then citizens cannot have confidence in our system of justice and will not respect the law because the law allows innocent people to be convicted for serious crimes they did not commit.[12]

  When an innocent person has been accused of sexual assault, he or she should first meet with an experienced attorney before talking to anyone else about the false allegation.   The reason for this is simple: just as accusers such as Jennifer Thompson may make mistakes due to human memory problems, those who are accused such as Ronald Cotton can make mistake due to memory problems that may cause others to mistakenly assume that they are guilty.   In Ronald Cotton’s case, he decided to talk to police about Jennifer Thompson’s allegations because he figured that he was innocent and had nothing to hide he; however, because Ronald mistakenly mixed up dates when explaining who he was with at the time of the alleged assault, and his alibi witnesses denied being with Ronald at that time, it made him look like he was a liar and guilty.[13] 

Likewise, anyone who is accused of a serious crime should avoid talking about it to their family, friends, or others until they have an opportunity to meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney because those persons could become witnesses and be called to testify to any inconsistencies in the accused person’s account of what happened.  As explained above, simple memory mistakes could cause an innocent person to look guilty or, as illustrated by the game of telephone, could cause someone to mix up what the accused person told them.  Most importantly, someone falsely accused of a sexual assault generally should not talk to their accuser about what happened until he or she has first spoken to an experienced criminal defense attorney because this could cause a prosecutor or police officer to assume that there is witness intimidation, may result in further criminal charges if the communication violates the judge’s order, and could be used against the accused person at trial as evidence that he or she is trying to manipulate his accuser into taking his or her side.  Generally, the accused person can explain to loved ones and friends that he or she has chosen not to talk to others about the case and will allow the justice system to handle it.

Because alleged sexual assault cases often involve complicated legal and factual issues, it is important for the accused to reserve or obtain money to hire a good defense lawyer and have additional money available for investigators and expert witnesses, who can also be expensive but necessary to provide a strong factual and legal defense.  Oftentimes, a conviction for a sexual offense can involve more severe punishment such as a lengthy prison sentence, life-altering restrictions if the person is ordered to be on the Sex Offender Registry,  and significant employment discrimination.  Therefore it is important to hire an experienced attorney who can guide the person through the process and give him or her the greatest chances of a successful outcome. 

Finally, because cases involving allegations of sexual assault, particularly false allegations, can cause a tremendous amount of stress on the accused and his or her family as well as possible damage to their professional reputation, many people benefit from professional help, including the assistance of certain types of counselors and other mental health professionals who have a responsibility to provide confidential services to their clients.  Because there are some exceptions to confidentiality among certain types of counselors and mental health professionals, and because some family therapy sessions may involve a spouse or other family members that may make the conversation no longer confidential, it generally is a good idea to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney about whether a particular counselor or mental health professional may have limitations to their duty of confidentiality to their clients that the accused may want to ask the therapist or counselor about before seeking counseling. 

 


[1]Rumney, P. N. S. (2006). False allegations of rape. Cambridge Law Journal, 65, 128-158.

[2] Irving B. Weiner; Donald K. Freedheim (2003). Handbook of Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. p. 438. ISBN 0-471-17669-9.

[3] Ney, T (1995). True and False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Assessment and Case Management. Psychology Press. pp. 23–33. ISBN 0-87630-758-6.

[4] Cyr, M. and Bruneau, G. (2008). Assessing false allegations of child sexual abuse. In M. St-Yves and M. Tanguay, eds., The Psychology of Criminal Investigations: The Search for the Truth (pp. 199-228). Toronto: Carswell.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/03/04/the-perfect-witness/a7fa0461-c15c-4237-86db-52ab5069fbea/?utm_term=.754276eabc94

[6] https://believermag.com/an-interview-with-ronald-cotton/

[7] https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/ronald-cotton/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/03/04/the-perfect-witness/a7fa0461-c15c-4237-86db-52ab5069fbea/?utm_term=.754276eabc94

[9] https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/ronald-cotton/

[10] https://www.innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/

[11] De Zutter, A., Horselenberg, R., and Van Koppen, P.J. (2018).  Motives for filing a false allegation of rape.  Arch Sex Behav. 47(2):457-464. doi: 10.1007/s10508-017-0951-3. Epub 2017 Feb 17.

[12] https://blog.skepticallibertarian.com/2014/08/11/quote-files-john-adams-on-innocence-guilt-and-punishment/

[13] https://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre2009041720

Sexual Assault Defense Lawyer Corey Mehlos. Sheboygan Outagamie Brown Counties.