OUR OPINION: Too much prosecutorial zeal at UND
Twice in the past year, UND got hit by bad publicity and suffered a black eye. The first happened with the legislative flare-up about the Fighting Sioux nickname. For today's purposes, it's enough to say that the ongoing saga frustrates nickname ...
Twice in the past year, UND got hit by bad publicity and suffered a black eye. The first happened with the legislative flare-up about the Fighting Sioux nickname. For today's purposes, it's enough to say that the ongoing saga frustrates nickname friends and foes alike.
But that flare-up began off-campus -- in the Legislature, at the NCAA and so on. UND responded as well as it could; but even today, a great many decisions remain out of the school's hands.
In contrast, the other event began, was carried out and now has concluded at UND. It's the case of Caleb Warner, the former student who was accused of sexual assault, found guilty by a campus tribunal, barred from campus for three years -- and then, 18 months later, told that the sanctions had been lifted, not coincidentally after a Wall Street Journal op-ed had made UND look bad.
UND deserves to be embarrassed because in many ways, the school acted shabbily. University officials should closely review the case to make sure nothing similar happens again.
Years from now, the Warner case still will be pointed to as a particular kind of campus injustice. It's one in which a "campus court" decision on a supercharged topic -- sex, in this case -- takes on a life of its own, damaging the accused's reputation even after the discovery of powerful new evidence.
Twice, Warner asked for a new hearing, the first time shortly after learning of the new evidence. Twice, UND officials turned him down, for reasons that ... well, let's review:
The incident between Warner and a female student took place one night in December 2009. Sometime in the weeks that followed, "Warner's accuser reported an allegation of sexual assault to the university and the Grand Forks Police Department," reports the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE, which eventually took Warner's case.
UND held a hearing for Warner in February 2010, then told him a few days later that he'd been found guilty. He was banned from campus and suspended for three years.
The new evidence surfaced a few months after that. Warner asked for a new hearing, but UND turned him down -- on the basis that his five-day appeals period had expired back in February.
In other words, there was a finding of guilt. There was a banning from campus. There was a period of five days in which to appeal.
After that, it was tough luck, Mr. Warner -- even after criminal charges had been filed: charges against Warner's accuser, along with a warrant for her arrest and a claim that she'd lied about the incident to police.
That was the new evidence UND chose to ignore.
Under those circumstances, UND's inflexibility on the five-day deadline was "inconsistent with the minimum demands of fundamental fairness that every student must be afforded," UND Provost Paul LeBel concluded earlier this month.
Warner sought FIRE's help earlier this year. Again, armed with the Grand Forks police charges against his accuser, he asked UND for a new hearing.
And again, UND turned him down. This time, the university declared that just because the Grand Forks police thought the accuser was lying, that was no reason to doubt the UND student-and-faculty tribunal's conclusion that she was not.
"For a glimpse into the treacherous territory of sexual relationships on college campuses, consider the case of Caleb Warner," Harvey Silvergate, FIRE's board chairman, then wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
That was on July 15. On July 26, UND President Robert Kelley asked LeBel to take a new look.
And on Oct. 10, LeBel vacated the sanctions, concluding that the professional judgment of a trained law enforcement officer mattered after all.
Whole books have been written about the hothouse atmosphere on American college campuses and the way it can choke a defendant's rights. UND should take note of those trends and combat them, always remembering why the criminal justice (as opposed to the student conduct) system has such extensive protections in the first place:
It's because in any given proceeding, it's entirely possible that the person in the dock stands falsely accused.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald