Melania Trump, wife of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, recently spoke wisely about a principle that needs to be heard more often. In an interview with CNN, Mrs. Trump said that accusations of sexual misconduct affecting a woman or a man should be heard in a court of law with evidence to support the charge. False accusations, she added, are hurtful and unfair.
Feminist and media advocates assume that all accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against Donald Trump are true. Sexual assault is an awful crime, but authorities who deal with these accusations on a regular basis know that a significant proportion of cases do not hold up under scrutiny.
In the U.S. military, the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Office (SAPRO) issues an annual report on completed cases of sexual assault. Numbers of actual cases keep escalating every year, but the SAPRO reports also have demonstrated the need for fairness and due process, not automatic assumptions that accusations alone are enough to prove guilt.
From Fiscal Year 2011 to Fiscal Year 2015, approximately 17 percent of actual cases of sexual assault in the military were unsubstantiated, usually because of a lack of evidence. This remarkably-consistent 17 percent of unsubstantiated cases (almost 1 in 5) should be cause for concern, but the Pentagon has done nothing about it. Sexual assaults are serious and wrong, but it is also wrong to file or act upon accusations that cannot withstand objective investigation.
Injustices such as the University of Virginia Rolling Stone/fraternity case and false accusations against the Duke University Lacrosse Team showed the nation how destructive untruthful allegations of sex crimes can be. In both cases, lurid media reports of assaults that never happened left the lives of young men in ruins.
Charles P. McDowell, Ph.D., formerly with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, has spotlighted the importance of knowing the hallmarks of truthful accusations — not only for women’s sake, but to avoid grievous injustice to men who may be punished for crimes they did not commit.
Skilled investigators can recognize hallmarks of truthful accusations, separating them from charges filed for other reasons such as jealousy, revenge or a desire for attention. No single element is definitively diagnostic, but a combination of unusual factors suggests the possibility of a false complaint.
For example, truthful complaints are usually prompt; false ones are delayed by weeks or months. Although some cases are thought to be unsolvable “he said, she said” situations, lack of corroborating evidence, such as witnesses at the alleged crime scene, can raise doubts about accusations. Complainants with emotional problems sometimes file false accusations that “copycat” reported crimes involving others.
Linda Fairstein, a former head of the sex-crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, has challenged the belief that women never lie about sexual assault. Any man who says the same thing, however, puts his career at risk. Even liberal Law Professor Alan Dershowitz was accused of sexual harassment just for discussing in class the possibility of false rape allegations.
Fox News morning host Tucker Carlson faced the problem in 2001. A woman he had never met claimed that he had drugged her at a Kentucky restaurant and sexually assaulted her, using violence. After many sleepless nights for Carlson and $14,000 in legal fees, the accuser dropped the bogus charges. Carlson survived, but the lives of many men falsely accused never are the same.
On matters of sexual assault, the 2016 Republican National Platform calls for “fairness and due process rights for all concerned, both the accuser and the accused.” (p. 44) This means that well-trained legal adversaries should present and cross-examine evidence on an equal basis, in order to discover truth and achieve the primary goal: justice for everyone concerned.
There is not enough time to evaluate accusations against Mr. Trump, and to conduct adversarial proceedings that get at the truth with evidence that supports or refutes each charge. That’s why the court of public opinion, the one that matters most now, should reserve judgment. In a presidential election as important as this, voters should not be stampeded by last-minute allegations alone.
Elaine Donnelly is President of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization that reports on and analyzes military/social issues.