This article is about the statistics of false allegations. If you are looking for assistance or support groups that specifically deal with false allegations, visit the following websites:

www.innocenceproject.org/
www.mediaradar.org/

False Allegations
Derek “The Fallen One” Logue
April 24, 2009, Addendum added Dec. 12, 2009

Hell no, I ain’t worried. I didn’t do this. You can’t convict me of something I didn’t do.” – John Stoll, one of the accused in the Bakersfield day care scandal

On Sunday, April 12, 2009, MSNBC premiered the documentary “Witch Hunt,” which told the story of the infamous Bakersfield day care abuse panic, which led to the false convictions of dozens of innocent people in the small town of Bakersfield, California during the early 1980s [1]. The Bakersfield hysteria spread throughout the United States and other English-speaking nations during the 1980s and early 1990s [2]. It could be argued that the current spate of sex offender laws find their origins in this social panic. In the nearly thirty years since the first of the Bakersfield cases were tried, the social panic surrounding sex crimes and offenders remains at a high level.

Our culture has cast all men in particular as potential sexual predators, and as a consequence, a growing number of men are fearful of children. As one man put it, “being a man, I’m guilty until proven innocent [3].” The news media releases many stories yearly of individuals who have served years or even decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. This begs the question: just how prevalent are false allegations in our hysteria-driven society?

Studies on false allegations

One critical study on false rape allegations found 41% (190) of rape allegations made over a 9 year period in one metropolitan area were indeed false allegations. “These false allegations appear to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge, and obtaining sympathy and attention.” This study also noted possible reasons for false rape allegations: “False rape allegations are not the consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress situations… Other factors that are typically responsible for unfounded declarations are victim’s late reporting to the police, lack of corroborating evidence, lack of cooperation by the victim and/or witnesses, reporting in the wrong jurisdiction, discrepancies in the victim’s story, wrong address given by the victim, victim’s drunkenness, victim’s drug usage, victim’s being thought a prostitute, victim’s uncertainty of events, victim’s belligerence [4] .” Granted, this is only one study, but one that remains relevant in a culture that believes an accusation is the same as a conviction.

Many more studies have focused on the possibility of false child sexual abuse allegations. An annotated list of studies at the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal violence lists numerous reports on the number of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) cases found to be false. Below is the false CSA allegation stats from the studies listed at the aforementioned website:

  • Bala, Schuman: 45 of 150 (30%)
  • Benedek, Schetky: 10 of 18 (55%)
  • Brown, Hewitt, Sheehan: 9% of 200
  • Faller: 15%-25% false
  • Green: 36%
  • Jones, McGraw: 7%
  • Jones, Seig: 4 of 20 (20%)
  • McGraw, Smith: 3 of 18 (16.5%), 1 from child
  • Thoennes, Tjadea: 33% of 129 [5]

It is interesting to note that most studies, with the exception of one, found no significant difference in allegations arising from custody disputes. The single study found the percentage of false allegations rose from 4% to 12% when custody disputes are involved and argues the possibility of malicious prosecutions in custody disputes should not be ruled out of the realm of possibilities [6].

Many professionals should look out for specific warning signs in such cases which may increase the likelihood of false allegations in CSA cases:

  1. Certain personality disorders of the accusers
  2. Divorce/ child custody proceedings
  3. Situations with the potential for financial gains
  4. History of unsubstantiated allegations
  5. Unusual timing of the allegation
  6. Situations which the accuser may have a need to draw attention away from them (such as substance abuse)
  7. Lack of response from the child [7]

The report lists typical reasons for false allegations; one or all could be prime factors:

  1. Emotional motivations [such as attention seeking]
  2. Revenge
  3. Therapist Error or Collusion
  4. Accusation to protect oneself from the consequences of other behavior [8]

While malicious or intentional accusations may be considered “rare” by statistical standards, the fact remains they do happen. Below are a few case studies of the different ways people landed behind bars due to false allegations:

Malicious Prosecution

Perhaps no other case embodies malicious prosecution than the infamous “Duke Lacrosse” sex scandal of 2006. The allegations stemmed from one of the two “exotic dancers” hired for an off-campus party. The backlash from the allegations was severe, including media embarrassment for the program and the players. Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong would state that as many as 46 of the Lacrosse players were under suspicion of the sex crime allegations [9]. Among those in the media who were quick to crucify the accused, media personality Wendy Murphy was the most vocal; she emphatically stated, “I never, ever, met a false rape claim, by the way. My own statistics speak the truth [10].” Apparently there is a first time for everything, as the case ended with the exoneration of the Lacrosse players and Prosecutor Nifong disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct. “The bar’s three-member disciplinary panel unanimously found Nifong guilty of fraud, dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation; of making false statements of material fact before a judge; of making false statements of material fact before bar investigators, and of lying about withholding exculpatory DNA evidence, among other violations [11].” [Note: See also my addendum regarding malicious prosecution from child services agencies]

Financial Gains

A New York man was freed after three years in prison for child rape he says he didn’t commit. He was convicted despite tests showing no rape had taken place and questionable evidence. The man states the motivating factor in the false allegations was money; he had recently acquired a work injury settlement. Despite the fact there was no evidence of a crime, Laura Ahern of Parents For Megan’s Law claims the man got off on a technicality [12].

Accusation to protect oneself from the consequences of other behavior

A thirteen-year-old boy in Pasco County, Florida called in a false kidnapping report to hide the fact that he was out on a date with a girl; the boy was subsequently placed in juvenile detention [13].

Coercion to cover up another crime

A South Dakota man was recently pardoned and exonerated after serving 22 years for a sex crime he never committed. Accused by his half-sister, it was later determined the half-sister lied under coercion by the boyfriend of the girl’s mother; the boyfriend was the one molesting her at the time [14].

Attention Seekers

Two Alabama teenagers lured a convicted sex offender to their homes in order to get him arrested and gain air time on television. Later, evidence surfaced that the teens lied about how they lured the registrant to their house for the arrest (to buy a broken motorcycle, not for soliciting sex through MySpace), and the charges against the registrant were dropped [15].  

False Guilty Pleas

You’re faced with the possibility of a 25 year sentence for rape, the jury is poised to convict you, and the state offers you probation or two years with a lesser charge, would you take the deal? In the case of one Virginia boy, he did just that. The boy admitted to sex with a girl she claimed raped him. Later, the girl recanted, but not before the boy entered a guilty plea in exchange for a juvenile sentence. The case has yet to be overturned [16].  

Even when proven innocent, still considered guilty

DNA evidence has cleared over 200 people convicted of sex crimes since 1989, many of whom have served lengthy prison sentences. In addition to the stigma and shame they carry even after being exonerated, few states offer support and assistance to the exonerated. Many of those exonerated have found even with the exoneration papers in hand, they were typically treated as a convicted sex offender, including harassment, denial of housing and employment, and some were still forced to register [17].  Even the New York man released on appeal was harassed even on the day of his release, and Laura Ahern implied he was still a guilty man [18].  Fortunately, a handful of states are taking initiative to expunge the public records of those completely exonerated, including Alaska, which is drafting a bill to do just that. Currently under Alaska law, the arrest records remain public even after exoneration, which becomes a major problem particularly when applying for employment [19].

Sex Offender label the new insult

Current discriminatory remarks such as the misuse of the term “gay” as a derisive term are being replaced with the terms “sex offender,” “predator,” or “pedophile” as the latest form of personal attack, which can have serious consequences. In Pennsylvania, an eighth-grade student nearly faced criminal charges after making online claims her school principal was an admitted “sex addict” and “pedophile [20] .” In Colorado, an anonymous person made false sex offender fliers targeting a man not listed on any sex offender registry, citing the controversial website “Family Watchdog” as a reference. Crime Stoppers offered a reward for the arrest of the creator of these slanderous fliers [21].  In Illinois, a smear campaign depicting one state senator as a “friend of child molesters” during the 2008 election [22].

Conclusion

Predator panic is alive and well even in 2009. If anything our culture is reinforcing this panic. We’ve gone so far as use labels given to sex offenders as insults and personal attacks against individuals. So it comes as no surprise that despite a high degree of false allegations, the accused are already convicted in the court of public opinion. Everyone is “guilty until proven innocent.” Actually, even when proven innocent, public opinion merely sees him as “getting off on a technicality.” The innocent be damned; even celebrity child safety advocate Mark Lunsford testified before the March 2009 SORNA committee hearing that sacrificing a few innocent people is a small price to pay for child safety [23].  Sacrificing the innocent to save the innocent is an oxymoron. The pressure to accept a lesser plea is overwhelming, and given the vast majority of criminal cases end in guilty pleas, those who are truly innocent have little hope to overcome false allegations.

At the least, one solution would be to make false allegations as serious as the offenses they false accuse others of committing. Programs should be in place to assist those exonerated, and no red tape should exist to stymie the clearing of the records of innocent people. But until people accept the real possibility of false allegations, many more innocent people will be swallowed up in this wave of Predator Panic.

More reading on false allegations

References

 

  1. “Witch Hunt: About the Film – Synopsis.” Witch Hunt Documentary Website, 2009. http://www.witchhuntmovie.com/about.html, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  2. “Day care sex abuse hysteria.” Wikipedia, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_care_sex_abuse_hysteriaretrieved April 24, 2009.
  3. Zaslow, Jeff, “Avoiding Kids: How men cope with being cast as predators.” Wall Street Journal, Spt. 6, 2007.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118903209653018615.html, Retrieved Feb. 19, 2008
  4. Eugene J. Kanin. “False rape allegations.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Feb. 1994
  5. “Are Allegations of Sexual Abuse That Arise During Child Custody Disputes Less Likely To Be Valid? An Annotated Review of the Research.” The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, 2009. http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/ap.html, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  6. Nico Trocme and Nicholas Bala. “False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate.” Child Abuse and Neglect, 2005. http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/docs/Trocme.pdf, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  7. Richard CW Hall and Ryan CW Hall. “False Allegations: The role of the Forensic Psychiatrist.” Journal of Psychiatric Practice, September 2001.
  8.  Ibid., pp. 343-344
  9. “Looking back at the Duke Lacrosse Case.” Duke Office of News and Communication, 2009. http://news.duke.edu/lacrosseincident/, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  10. KC Johnson. “The Wendy Murphy File.” Durham in Wonderland, Dec. 31, 2006. http://durhamwonderland.blogspot.com/2006/12/wendy-murphy-file.html, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  11. Lara Setrakian and Chris Francescani. “Former Duke Prosecutor Nifong Disbarred.” ABC News, June 16, 2007. http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=3285862, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  12. Emily Smith. “Convicted sex offender free on appeal.” ABC 7, December 18, 2008. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local&id=6182352&pt=print, Retrieved April 24, 2009
  13. “Authorities: Boy called in own fake kidnapping.” Bay News 9, April 3, 2008. http://www.baynews9.com/content/36/2008/4/3/337118.html?title=Authorities:+Boy+called, retrieved April 24, 2009
  14. Amanda Palluck. “Finally Free.” Brookings Register, April 3, 2009. http://www.brookingsregister.com/V2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=4740&page=76, Retrieved April 25, 2009
  15. Virginia Bridges, “Charges dropped in fake Baldwin County sex sting.” AL.com, Oct. 16, 2008. http://www.al.com/news/press-register/metro.ssf?/base/news/122414854135910.xml&coll=3, Retrieved April 25, 2009
  16. Steve Drizin. “False Guilty Pleas and Juvenile Injustice.” Bluhm Legal Clinic Blog, Northwestern Univ. School of Law, March 7, 2009. http://blog.law.northwestern.edu/bluhm/2009/03/false-guilty-pleas-and-juvenile-injustice.html, Retrieved April 25, 2009
  17. Kevin Johnson. “Those cleared by DNA tests struggle to be free.” USA Today, Jan. 27, 2009. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-01-27-exonerated_N.htm, Retrieved April 25, 2009.
  18. Emily Smith, “Free on appeal,” ABC 7, ibid.
  19. James Halpin. “Bill would clean files of false accusations.” Anchorage Daily News, April 12, 2009. http://www.adn.com/2627/v-printer/story/757736.html, Retrieved April 25, 2009
  20. Gene Policinski. “Fake Web page may have chipped away at student-speech rights.” Rockford Register Star, Oct. 6, 2008.
  21. Nick Bonham. “Flier falsely calls resident sex offender.” The Pueblo Chieftain, Oct. 18, 2008. http://www.chieftain.com/articles/2008/10/18/news/local/doc48f978e821a9e505539832.prt, Retrieved April 25, 2009
  22. Kevin Haas. “Friends of Rep. Ron Wait respond to Tuite’s political ad.” Rockford Register Star, Sept. 17, 2008.
  23. Laurie Peterson, “The AWA Hearing.” RSOL Digest, March 2009. http://reformsexoffenderlaws.org/digest.php#0019, Retrieved April 25, 2009

ADDENDUM 12/12/2009

Re: Malicious Prosecution by social workers

Recently I received an e-mail suggesting I left out one very important detail; namely, malicious prosecution cases by social workers rather than through the DA or police. To clarify, for the sake of argument, I simply neglected to use the term “social workers/ children’s services” when writing; however, I had them in mind when writing about malicious prosecution. Social workers, child services employees, and law enforcement serve the same functions in regards to the investigation and prosecution of sex crime accusations, so for all intensive purposes, are one and the same. However, I will delve further into this topic to add to this article. I hold the Bakersfield day care scare as the standard of malicious prosecution from social services and law enforcement agencies in a collaborative effort. It is difficult to separate the two agencies in terms of malicious prosecution. Hopefully, this helps clarify the deficiency point out in this article.