I’m not going to hold my breath until Patrick Lynch, Rhode Island’s Attorney General, declares whether he wants to investigate William McKinney III for sex crimes, but a statement from him is called for. According to a NYTimes article (4/15/10), McKinney’s lawsuit against Brown University, which was just transferred to federal court, rests on whether Brown was wrong in not contacting the police when another student accused him of rape. Mr. McKinney’s claim, odd as it seems, was that he was denied the opportunity to clear his name that was available in criminal court. Instead, he was forced to drop out of Brown and to keep his mouth shut about the whole thing.
The story raises familiar questions about sexual misconduct charges between students, and the issue of federal jurisdiction is interesting too, but the most intriguing thing about it, as I see it, is how it reveals the public’s ambivalence about the purpose of the criminal justice system. Here we have someone who feels he suffered a wrong when he was not accused of being a criminal! And from the brief summary made public so far, he has a point.
Technically, the Constitution states that a person is innocent of a crime until proven guilty. In general, the State brings charges against the accused, and a guilty conviction results in punishment. The entire relationship is between the Public and the accused, and the result is not supposed to be affected by the interests of others, including the victim. However, there is a widespread belief that this is inadequate as a truly fair system of justice, and that the legal system should also contain provisions to compensate the victim or, in some cases, to order some future course of conduct by the accused.
I have no problem with that, in theory, but the practice often complicates things so that the primary function of the criminal justice system, namely protecting the public, is often hopelessly compromised. The reported deal at Brown is just one example. If true, everybody involved decided it was in their own best interest to “work it out” between themselves. They could do that as long as nobody called it “criminal” in public. But using the same word, if kept within the ivied walls, allowed them choices they wouldn’t have otherwise.
That kind of thinking controls in many other areas, especially when you add money to the mix. Obstruction of justice? Sure, that’s what you call it when a criminal or, more often, someone who has too much to lose if even called a criminal, whether guilty or not, pays someone for not reporting a crime to the police. Whether it’s the offspring of a billionaire, or the Catholic Church, it makes them guilty of a new crime, one that is separate from the one covered up. But why is the one who writes the check the only guilty one here? Why not the one who cashes the check? Why not the lawyers who brokered the deal?
One other interesting case — which I think deserved more attention than it received — was a model’s civil lawsuit against basketball legend Dennis Rodman for rape in 2001. It actually went to trial, and was rejected by the jury, with no formal complaint to the police. A spokesperson for the DA reportedly said there would be no prosecution unless some evidence of rape was presented.
I don’t think that’s good enough in this kind of situation. No civil suit that charges what amounts to a criminal act should be allowed to proceed without a formal statement by the DA that it will not interfere with any present or future criminal prosecution.
Getting back to Rhode Island, the reason I’m not holding my breath about Lynch’s intentions about McKinney is because he has declared something else, namely that he’s running for governor. This, I suspect, is an activity that just might push other matters — like doing one’s job of protecting the people of Rhode Island from criminals — aside.