In the shadow of a red-brick hospital surrounded by neatly manicured grass, a University of Kansas graduate student told three police officers she had been recently raped following a night of drinking with close friends during homecoming weekend in September 2018. She said she didn’t want to press charges or file a formal police report — she just wanted to preserve any evidence in case another woman ever came forward with a similar accusation.
The police asked to look at her phone. She handed it over.
In one of the messages, sent just 16 minutes before the woman met with the officers at the hospital, she called the encounter “borderline rape,” KCTV reported, and said she had “the bruises and statements to prove it.” In other texts sent to a friend in the hours after the 30-year-old woman woke up — still drunk, naked and confused in the Lawrence, Kan., apartment of her then-boyfriend’s best friend — she expressed regret and made jokes about what had happened.
“It’s gross … he’s actually really good at sex though,” she texted. A short while later, she texted the same friend: “Get here fast. I’m literally about to have a breakdown.” She told police she’d sent those messages to “downplay” what had happened, and couldn’t remember typing some of the messages sent right after the alleged attack. Her friend told police the woman’s reactions made her believe she had been raped, KCTV reported.
Those texts later became the heart of a police investigation into the woman and a criminal charge filed in January for allegedly making a false report of rape.
After more than a month of criticism from sexual assault advocates, though, the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office on Monday dropped three felony charges for interfering with an officer by falsely reporting a felony crime. The county’s top prosecutors says he still believes in the “merits of this case” in a statement obtained by The Washington Post.
But attorneys for the woman, whom The Post is not naming as an alleged victim of sexual assault, say there’s overwhelming evidence she was indeed assaulted.
“Our client did not ‘fabricate’ the bruises on her arms, on her legs, and on her neck,” her attorneys told the Kansas City Star in a statement last month. “Our client did not ‘fabricate’ the results of her examination, which revealed her additional, sensitive injuries.”
In September 2018, the woman told police in Lawrence she couldn’t remember exactly what had happened two nights before, when she’d been very intoxicated. She recounted falling in and out of consciousness as her boyfriend’s friend allegedly led her back to his apartment, the Star reported. She didn’t remember how she had arrived at the apartment, but she did remember asking to leave. She told officers she woke up while the friend was having sex with her, remembering how the man held her down even as she told him “no.” After waking up a second time during the attack, she said she pushed him off, but blacked out again.
After telling three officers her story, she walked into the hospital where nurses took swabs for a rape kit and documented bruises on her neck, arms and legs. Hospital staff documented vaginal injuries, court records said.
While the woman endured the invasive exam, officers with the Lawrence Police Department chatted about her story. Within 90 minutes of first speaking to the alleged rape victim, and before interviewing the accused man or the witnesses who had seen him leave with the visibly intoxicated woman, the officers decided she had lied.
“We discussed it and none of us believed this was a legitimate claim of rape,” one of the officers testified, KCTV reported. The TV station also reported that none of the officers who interviewed the alleged rape victim regularly worked sex crimes, and the only one with any trauma-related training had just one week of instruction on taking reports from abused children.
Lawrence police and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately return requests for comment late Monday.
The felony charges followed several years of public outcry over inadequate handling of sexual assault investigations by police. Across the United States, departments funded by federal grants have been testing decades-long backlogs of rape kits, but clearance rates remain low and arrest rates even lower in many jurisdictions. Netflix recently released “Unbelievable,” a miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by ProPublica and the Marshall Project that exposed the story of 18-year-old Marie, who was wrongly convicted of false reporting after being attacked by a serial rapist in Washington state.
The Kansas officers’ quick judgment set in motion a cascade of controversial law enforcement actions. Police asked the woman to recount her story two more times and then launched an investigation into the 30-year-old graduate student, rather than her alleged rapist. Officers interviewed the accused man, who has not been named in local media reports or police statements because he was never charged. They also collected text messages sent between the man and his friends, which the woman’s lawyers pointed to as proof that she did not lie.
“We got on the road and she was so f---ed up I was like hell Na,” the man accused of sexual assault texted a friend the night of the alleged attack.
“She looked f---ed up yo,” one of his friends responded in a text, KCTV reported. “You didn’t even look tipsy.”
Despite those messages and the woman’s story of being attacked, police decided to arrest her in January. Police told the student someone had sent them an anonymous note about the rape, but officers couldn’t decipher what it said. They asked her to come into the police department to help them read it.
When she arrived, police handcuffed her and told her she was being arrested for filing a false report, the Star reported. She asked what the arresting officers wanted her to say, and one told her he wanted to hear the truth.
“This happened,” she said to an officer, the Star reported.
Prosecutors indicted the woman on three felony charges for filing a false report. Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said he suspected the woman had sought out consensual sex to punish her boyfriend, and then reported the rape out of regret. Branson refused to test the woman’s rape kit, against pressure from the woman’s defense attorneys, and dismissed the injuries she suffered.
“We don’t care if the thing is tested,” Branson told the Star last month. “Those artifacts, bruising and hemorrhaging, can be there with normal consensual intercourse. So the fact that there’s that evidence there doesn’t do anything to determine the manner in which the intercourse occurred, whether it is consensual or non-consensual.”
After local media heavily scrutinized the case, Branson filed a motion this month to place a gag order on the defense lawyers and defendant. It was the first gag order his office had requested in three years, KCTV reported.
On Monday, Branson withdrew the criminal charges.
“While we believe in the merits of this case and are confident the facts would be borne out at trial, the cost to our community and the negative impact on survivors of sexual violence cannot be ignored,” Branson said in a statement. “We are concerned this case, and the significant amount of misinformation surrounding it, could discourage other survivors from reporting their attack.”
It’s unclear what information in media reports the district attorney disputes. Most reports relied heavily on the probable cause affidavit and other materials produced by Branson’s office because of the gag order.
The woman’s lawyers said Monday that the facts of the case did not support prosecution, and the charges should never have been filed.
“We are pleased that our client can finally put this nightmare behind her,” attorneys Cheryl Pilate and Branden Bell said in a statement shared with The Post late Monday night. “Instead of blaming the media for spreading ‘misinformation,’ the DA should take a long, hard look at its own practices, admit that it got it wrong and give our client the apology she deserves.”