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CAUTIONARY TALE OF SEX, LIES AND SKEWED STATISTICS

Heidi Jones Got Some Splainin'

Just imagine, while police on Long Island were investigating the horrifying sex crimes and murders of four women whose bodies were callously dumped on a local beach,  cops in Manhattan were running around on a wild goose chase created by WABC weather gal Heidi Jones who was arrested this week on charges that made up a story about an attack and attempted rape while jogging in Central Park.

updated 12/18/10: The Daily News reports today that her bogus report of a man dragging her off a jogging train drew in detectives from across the city and a police detail assigned to her personally for security and surveillance.  They also reported that WABC also provided security.

Heidi, here’s your community service assignment: use your reporting skills to crunch the numbers and find out how many women actually  cry/lie rape or attempted rape and file false reports.  Then research why.  I’ve been reporting on rape for 30 years and I still can’t get to the bottom of this mystery.

In the seventies, I was a part of a new generation of women reporters who helped bring rape out of the closet to help victims shake the trauma and muster the courage to face their attackers in court.  My old friend and colleague, Margo Harakas,  was first to write about the brave women who not only called themselves rape “survivors” instead of victims, they chose to have their names printed in the paper in an attempt to de-stigmatize themselves.   Our editor had founded the first rape crisis hotline in Broward County, Florida and she would tell us gut-wrenching stories of women who didn’t come forward out of fear of not being believed. In those days, so many women still chose not to report rape at all, there was just no way of determining any real statistics.

Fast forward to 1992 when Sam Donaldson and I reported on “Tailhook,”  the Navy scandal, where both civilian and military women were passed through a gauntlet of groping sailors.  The morning after our graphic 27-minute story aired on ABC News’ PrimeTime Live, the Secretary of the Navy was forced to resign and new training on sexual harassment became mandatory.  It looked like times had changed.

Then the mail began to pile up from women who said they weren’t just groped, they were raped by fellow soldiers in all branches of the military and either no one believed them or they were just “processed out” of the service.  As we vetted each and every awful story, we  had to drop one woman from our segment at the last moment after we discovered she had not been truthful to us.  At the time, the crime statistics the military used showed about 9% of rape reports were false and maybe that was our number, too.

More disturbing, however, was our discovery that the Navy was insisting anyone reporting a rape answer a 56-point questionnaire that was nicknamed, “Were you really raped?”  Two of the questions were variations on whether or not the alleged victim had ever been in financial trouble, something just about every young woman on a navy salary was likely to answer “yes” and clearly something that insinuated a motive other than justice.

That report, which also aired on PrimeTime Live, inspired the Navy to ban their silly questionnaire.  And one female soldier with an extraordinary tale got justice months after we visited her home in New Mexico.  She had reported a rape during the first Iraq war when, she said,  her commanding officer called her into his tent,  pinned her down and forced her to perform oral sex on him.  This assault, she said, only stopped when her boyfriend walked into tent and interrupted the alleged attack.

Come on, you might say. How does that scenario happen? Isn’t it more likely it was consensual until her boyfriend arrived?   Would you change your mind if you learned the officer pleaded guilty and was kicked out of the service?

Why False Rape Statistics are Meaningless

Yes, sex crimes are complicated and, without Heidi Jones’s help, it’s already too easy to dismiss many reports as false.  Statistics are virtually meaningless.  If you research deeply enough,  you will find varying estimates of false reports between a margin of 1 and 90%.   Why the extreme conflict in numbers?

First of all, there are no uniform standards of a “false” report.  Some jurisdictions have a classification of  “unfounded” for reports that have no proof or contain evidence of a lie.

Recent FBI uniform crime statistics estimate about 8% of rapes are “unfounded,” but they don’t define “unfounded.”  In some communities,  “unfounded” is a classification of a rape where the alleged victim reports she did not try to fight off her attacker, or if she had a prior relationship with her attacker or if the attacker did not use a weapon. In other places “unfounded” can also mean the alleged victim did not sustain visible injuries.

The best review of the studies of false rape accusations I found  is from Bruce Gross, Ph.D., who gathered them from 1968 to 2005 and wrote about them in The Forensic Examiner “False Rape Allegations: Assault on Justice.”

Dr. Gross’ article, which I recommend to anyone reporting on Heidi Jones, also tackles the common denominators of false reports plus the reasons women file  them, the leading one being a need for an alibi in order to protect oneself from a situation perceived as desperate.

Some women, as I suspect may have happened in Heidi Jones’ case, first “cry rape” to a partner in an attempt to manipulate their support or sympathy and they never expect the situation to develop further or involve anyone else.  But then that partner, or a relative who hears of the story, presses the “victim” to report the crime to the police.

updated 12/18/10: Or, perhaps the alibi is needed for a work-related problem — like taking the day off for a marathon run when your bosses have already refused to give you the day off.  Perhaps they found out you weren’t truthful when you called in sick, so you feel compelled to make up a whopper… a whopper so disturbing, your bosses contact the police themselves out of care, common decency, and because they’re in the news business and they know their call will get immediate action.

One of the red flags that often signal a false report is a delay in reporting.  For the troubled weather gal, her alleged attack occurred at the end of September; her report to the police was the end of November, after which a Latino man who fit her “description” was briefly detained. From the start, even as police continued to pour over surveillance footage in and around Central Park, they apparently had doubts about her story, on that had big enough holes to drive an Eyewitness News truck through.

Frustratingly, the studies gathered by Dr. Gross are either too small or too regional to offer definitive answers surrounding the strange phenomena of making up a story of a sexual assault, or an attempted one as was the case here.   So, over to you Heidi Jones.  As you work really hard to discover why you wasted everyone’s time and compassion, and I hope you do, please share your results with the rest of us so that real victims of real crimes will not be second-guessed out of the court-rooms, or out of the military, and can instead find real justice in their future.

*Rumney, P. N. S. (2006). False allegations of rape. The Cambridge Law Journal, 65(1), 128-158.

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