When viewed from that perspective, it becomes understandable that a jury could not eliminate the second story beyond a reasonable doubt, and, therefore, had to acquit Michael of the crime.
Psychological treatment of suspect
Given America's complex racial history, it is no surprise that race is oftentimes seen as a significant factor in rape. There is no doubt that black men have been unfairly targeted as rapists in America. This is due to a combination of factors, but has to do with mistaken identity in cross-racial sexual assaults and also consenting partners claiming assault when the sexual relationship is revealed. In this television episode, the assailant and his defense counsel played upon these stereotypes to suggest that Michael had not committed an assault. However, the television audience was aware that he had raped Sarah at gunpoint, a situation that is not even ambiguously consensual. However, by using the stereotypes in his favor in order to demonstrate his innocence, Michael is able to achieve an acquittal.
The episode makes one wonder if there is some truth to the stereotype that black men are more likely to rape than white men. Given the horrific history of how white men have been able to assault brown-skinned women without any fear of punishment for hundreds of years, it seems almost irresponsible to even suggest that might be the case. However, in American society, African-American males are far more likely to be disadvantaged than advantaged, and there is a legitimate reason to believe that disadvantaged males may be more likely to engage in sexual assaults than advantaged males. In a study where participants were made to feel either disadvantaged or advantaged relative to their male peers, the participants who were made to feel disadvantaged reported fewer negative attitudes towards rape (Nunes & Pettersen, 2011). For the researchers, the evolutionary explanation behind this behavior is that disadvantaged males have not had the same opportunities for consensual sex as advantaged males, and that to procreate they have had to engage in sexual assaults (Nunes & Pettersen, 2011). This makes one wonder if any group that is considered disadvantaged when compared to the normative group in society would be more likely to engage in sexual assault. The glaring problem with that is probably the idea that advantaged males have traditionally engaged in sexual assaults without acknowledging them as such, making one wonder if there is actually a difference in likelihood to commit sexual assault based on advantaged status or whether the perception that one would be committing a sexual assault is what actually changes.
Moreover, it seems unlikely that African-American males, or any group that is actually disadvantaged in modern society, would actually find this an excuse to rape. A study by Crocker and Major examined prejudice and self-esteem and found that, contrary to expectations, being a member of stigmatized group did not impact a person's global self-esteem (1989). If there is no impact on global self-esteem, it certainly seems like it would be difficult to suggest that a rapist in a disadvantaged group would feel the same level of disadvantage as members of a controlled study who were made to feel disadvantaged. Instead, it seems far more likely that people would consider advantage in comparison to their own self-identified peer group. Michael's peer group might be other young, black males, and he would have no disadvantage in that group. On the other hand, he may consider his peer group to be other males his age group and feel disadvantaged when compared to that group, and, thus, be more likely to rape. It appears that his own self-esteem is going to impact his perception of whether he is advantaged or disadvantaged more than actual statistics regarding his relative likelihood of success based on his race in comparison to the rest of American society. Therefore, it seems likely that further studies will demonstrate that race does not factor into the decreased negative feelings towards race one sees in disadvantaged groups.
In real life, sexual assaults are one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, because the very act at the center of the assault, intercourse, is rarely done, whether consensually or by force, in the presence of third-party witnesses. Instead, it frequently comes down to a case of he-said / she-said, and the jury's conclusion about the existence of an assault will depend on its impression of the accused and the accuser. Therefore, jurors have to rely upon what they know about both persons, the victim and the alleged rapist, in order to determine whether an assault occurred. Of course, jurists do not make these judgments in a vacuum; instead, they bring all of their knowledge with them into the courtroom. It is important to keep in mind that specific knowledge about other events can influence the jury's perception. For example, in this television show the defense attorney used the fact that black men have historically been falsely accused of sexual assault in his client's favor. The jury members could not be unaware of the racial bias that exists in the American criminal justice system. Therefore, to suggest that such racial bias was implicated in this particular trial, even though the television audience knew that Michael had, in fact, raped Sarah at gunpoint was a way for defense counsel to introduce reasonable doubt to the jury. Moreover, the fact that Michael had actually committed the assault does not mean that there was not some racial bias in the handling of the case; the police apprehended other black male suspects who did not have a significant physical resemblance to Michael, reinforcing the idea of some type of bias.
Furthermore, Sarah's own behavior did contribute to the acquittal. While a woman's sexual history would not be part of a rape trial in an ideal world, in the real world, when the question comes down to one of consent, it is impossible to see how a woman's immediate sexual history would not be at issue. Sarah had been involved in two questionable sexual exchanges immediately prior to the assault; a romantic relationship with her teacher and a one-night stand the night before the sexual assault. It is not outside of the realm of possibility to imagine that she is being less than forthcoming about what actually happened with Michael. Unfortunately, Sarah's treatment by the criminal justice system mirrors the treatment that many rape victims receive on a daily basis. While this is deplorable, it is critical to keep in mind that a defendant's guilt is not dependent upon the severity of the accusations made against him. Though a rapist may do horrible things to his victim, the horror of that crime cannot change the standard of justice in America. A rapist is an individual actor who, as an individual, does awful things to a person. However, if the standard of justice were to change in rape cases, resulting in more false convictions of actually innocent defendants, it would be the state doing those horrible things. There is a meaningful and significant difference between state action and individual action that many victims and victims' advocates fail to acknowledge when talking about changing laws related to rape prosecutions.
Because the standard in the American criminal justice system is beyond a reasonable doubt, this means that defendants are to get the benefit of the doubt. There is no exception for truly horrific crimes. While the television audience knew that Michael was actually guilty, they had information that the jury could not have. Moreover, the false reporting statistics for rape are similar to the false reporting statistics for other violent crimes; given the number of wrongfully convicted people in America's prisons, it is clear that lowering the evidentiary burden is not the appropriate way to handle these cases. The reality is that there is a difference in the state depriving someone of his freedom and an individual doing the same thing. Rape is a horrible crime, but it is perpetrated by an individual. It would be a far worse crime to allow the accusation of rape to equal a conviction. The result is that, just like in this television show, rapists will go free. Moreover, fixing the problem is more complex than simply educating jurors about the psychology of rape victims. As one can see, other social issues, such as race, play a critical part in many of these prosecutions, making it unlikely that society will ever find an appropriate balance between victim rights and defendant's rights under the Constitution.
Anderson, I. (2007). What is a typical rape? Effects of victim and participant gender in female and male rape perception. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46(1), 225-245.
Briere, J. & Jordan, C.E. (2004). Violence against women: Outcome complexity and implications for treatment. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 1252-1276.
Crocker, J. & Major, M. (1989). Social stigma and self-esteem: The self-protective properties of stigma. Psychological Review, 96(4), 608-630.
DeClerque, D. (Producer). (2011 November 2). True believers. Law and Order: Special…