A look at Vanderbilt rape case that left community reeling

March 6, 2017

After 19 months, two previous trial attempts, a trial that lasted 12 days, and just over three hours of jury deliberations, on Jan. 27 a Nashville jury convicted two former Vanderbilt football players on multiple counts of sexual battery and aggravated rape. On the surface, the case appears straightforward: four men, all of them Vanderbilt football players at the time, sexually assaulted a fellow student, and some of them took videos and photos of the incident on their cell phones. They tried to cover it up, got caught, and at least two of them will serve time for it. But the case was more complicated than it appears, and its effects are wide-ranging and far from over.

In the long lead-up to the trial, the local media speculation hit on the hot-button themes of sports, sex and campus politics. The case has tangentially involved the Tennessee legislature and the state supreme court, and the local media has sued the metro police department over failure to release information. James Franklin, Vanderbilts football coach at the time of the assault, has left the school and is now the head coach at Penn State, a program whose recent history includes the horrible case of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant who was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

During the trial of the former Vanderbilt players, at least four other student-athletes testified to seeing the unconscious woman in the dorm, and two helped move her body from the hallway into the room of one of the defendants. None of them intervened or alerted authorities. Both the defense and the prosecution brought up the culture of the school, and especially of its athletes: The defense attempted to use it to excuse the defendants actions, while the DA portrayed them as embodiments of the problem.

It was ultimately the prosecutions take — along with a mountain of often graphic photo and video evidence compiled during a vigorous and comprehensive investigation by the Nashville Police Department — that convinced the jury, but both sides made claims that are concerning to the university. Vanderbilt continues to grapple with the issue of sexual assault and the scrutiny of a federal investigation. The trial for the other two football players has yet to be scheduled, and the defense for one of the men convicted in January, Brandon Vandenburg, plans to ask for a mistrial after his lawyer discovered that a juror didnt disclose that he was once the victim of a sex crime. Further complicating the case, a national news program, ABC’s 20/20, recently showed a court-protected video of the night of the assault, airing evidence from the case when two of the men have yet to face trial, and accidentally showing the victims name onscreen during their East coast broadcast.

Unlike other well-known football sexual assault cases — Steubenville (Ohio) High in 2012 or the investigation into at Florida State last year — the Vanderbilt football team is not the center of the community in Nashville, and the players involved were not particularly prominent. This incident, though, serves as an example of how sexual assault cases affect not only a team or a university, but also an entire community, with some ripples reaching far beyond the city limits.

In the early morning of June 23, 2013, the Nashville deputy district attorney says then-Vanderbilt wide receiver Chris Boyd received a text message with a photo attached. It showed an unconscious 21-year-old woman being sodomized. The sender of the text was Brandon Vandenburg, a tight end who had recently transferred from the College of the Desert in California. He was, according to ESPN, the nations No. 1 junior college tight end at the time he committed to Vanderbilt, but like the other defendants, he had yet to play a down for the program. According to a statement by the deputy district attorney during a plea hearing for Boyd on Sept. 13, 2013, Boyd promptly deleted [Vandenburgs text] because he didnt want his girlfriend to see it.?

The deputy DA said that Boyd texted back: Tell ur boys to delete that [expletive]. Im looking out for your ass. He followed up with, And tell your roommate he didnt see [expletive].

The jury took just over three hours to find Vandenburg and Batey guilty on all counts. Their sentencing will be held in early March. The victim released a statement saying she is hopeful that the publicity this case has received will lead to a discussion of how we can end sexual violence on college campuses. To other victims of sexual violence she said simply, You are not alone. You are not to blame. She is now in graduate school and has declined to speak to the media until the entire case is finally over.?

Julie Townsend, the senior vice president of communication for ABC News, says that the airing of the womans name was a terrible mistake that should never have happened. The program altered the West Coast broadcast to remove her name, had it removed from all online versions of the program, and apologized immediately to the woman through her attorney. They also launched an investigation to find out how the name made it on screen and to make sure that never happens again.

As for airing the video that is still under the courts protective order, Townsend says that there were extensive, serious conversations about it before they aired it and that they feel they used it extremely judiciously. It is not clear where ABC News obtained the video, and most parties involved in the case have denied culpability. Nashville District attorney Glenn Funk issued the following statement to SI.com: The District Attorneys Office is outraged that this video has been leaked. It is a violation of the courts protective order, another attack on the victim and it could impact the co-defendants right to a fair trial.? Every member of the prosecution team is willing to testify, under oath, that the leak did not come from this office. We challenge the defense counsel to do the same. Further, the District Attorneys Office will cooperate and assist with any investigation by the court into this serious breach.

Vanderbilt might not be a football school, but over the last four years, football has had a huge impact on the university. While Vanderbilt football fans and the Nashville community would happily return to worrying about woeful seasons and the yearly specter of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt showdown, the case is far from over. Even the verdict is not really a resolution — not yet, anyway. In the aftermath of this case, questions remain about how the football team, the athletic department, the university, and the community around it will learn from this and what long-term effect, if any, it will have.?

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