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Another False Accusation Bites the Dust

Well, go figure. I really did not intend to focus so much on sex crimes right now, but things happen. Like the woman who has been defaming and falsely accusing one of my favorite young musician/songwriters, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes), suddenly retracting her previous lies about the poor guy. (BTW, notice how the aka makes him sound like a criminal if you don’t know him? This is why prosecutors love to pile on the AKA’s when they file charges. It just sounds bad.)

Turns out, the woman was making stuff up. In her retraction, Joan Elizabeth Harris aka Joanie Faircloth states that she fabricated on-line accusations of being sexually assaulted by the musician ten years ago. The false accusation had been published in the comments section of an XO Jane article in December of 2013, where they quickly spread on Tumblr. But not before the lies had damaged his career.

Turns out, that rumors were spreading that Oberst had been fired from his record label, Nonesuch, which would have lent great weight to their truthfulness, if it had really happened. (It appears he never was fired.) I mean, what self-respecting record label wants to lose money? The common reaction would be that it must be true if the record label is willing to take such a drastic (and costly) step. Kind of like it must be true when the prosecutor is working so hard to lock up someone who has been accused of rape. Why go through all that trouble if it is all based on lies?

Well, Ms. AKA-Whatever supplies us with one explanation for why people might lie: She was going through a “difficult period” in her life due to her son’s illness. Huh? I mean, too bad about the son, but what does that have to do with anything? Just goes to show you. There can be as many reasons for people to make up something as serious as raping a sixteen year old as there are people in the world. Oh yes, she claimed that this happened when she was 16, back in 2003, ten years before she made her public claims. If ten years passing before someone cries rape is not a red flag, I don’t know what is.

We criminal defense lawyers, and prosecutors too, for that matter, refer to this as “delayed reporting“. It is a possible clue that the accusation is fabricated. The person making the claim has had ten years to develop their story, after all. When something that bad happens you would normally expect them to come forward sooner.

It is not that real rapes don’t go unreported. Tragically, that happens every day. Everywhere from colleges to military barracks, women are afraid to come forward after being sexually assaulted, and who can blame them? They have to go through the gauntlet of police investigation and potential public exposure of their personal lives. Which is why false accusations like this are so very wrong. They make the real victims look bad.

Oberst spent seven months trying to get Harris aka Faircloth to tell the truth. Finally he had to file a libel suit against her before she would admit that she lied. Some might say that this was just a threat made by a guilty rapist to avoid answering for his crimes. However, assuming he had a good defense attorney, he likely would have been advised not to go that route, precisely because by taking the offensive he risked being seen as a bully and manipulator, or in other words, like a rapist. That is why you are ‘darned if you do and darned if you don’t respond to false accusations, and why you need a lawyer to help you if you are falsely accused.

In jury selection I sometimes ask the jurors, “If I were to meet you socially, and the first thing I said was, ‘Hi, I am not a child molester,’ What would you think?” After squirming in their seats for a bit, they always say, “I would think you were a child molester!” I then go on to show how this is the reason someone might not be comfortable taking the witness stand to testify on their own behalf. Simply denying the lies can make you look guilty.

Thank goodness that didn’t happen here. It is one of those rare examples when taking the offense worked. Normally it is all defense. Which is why criminal defense attorneys guide their clients through this minefield slowly and carefully. At every turn you risk making the lies look real, just by the way you react. It is also why our system of criminal justice is so critical. You shouldn’t be convicted for holding your ground and making them prove what they cannot prove when it did not happen.

This is why the presumption of innocence is so very important. In America, you are innocent until proven guilty. Knowing how to make sure that works the way it is supposed to is what lawyers try to do every day, against all the odds.

Not everyone can afford to hire a team of lawyers and file libel suits, but everyone has the right to defend themselves in court against false charges. I’m just glad for Mr. Oberst that this time it worked.