At least in the courtroom, we act hastily when we conclude that the decisions of prosecutors and jurors can be based on presumptively believing sexual assault complainants. On the contrary, the presumption of innocence and the government’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in all criminal cases remind us that jurors have an obligation to weigh the credibility of accusers carefully, and indeed that a defendant must be given leeway to cross examine alleged victims to establish that they may be mistaken in their memory of historical events, that they might have a motive to fabricate claims, or that their perception may have been clouded by alcohol or narcotics. All members of society must be conditioned to listen with care and compassion when complainants bring forth accusations of sexual assault, so that we do not apply subconscious stereotypes or biases to reflexively discredit them. But as the “Me Too” movement grows, it is also essential that bedrock protections for the accused are not eroded in a way that predetermines a defendant’s guilt.
Most rape cases are not “whodunits” where identity is an issue. They involve interactions between two or more people who are known to each other from previous interactions-so called “acquaintance rape” situations-where the issue is what happened, not by whom. Sexual assaults usually occur in private, it is rare that they are witnessed by third-parties, and alleged attacks often leave little medical evidence or physical injury. The determinative issues in these types of rape cases are the victim’s consent and the defendant’s mens rea. Where there are no injuries and the defense is either non-occurrence or consent, the credibility of the accuser is especially central to the jury’s verdict.