NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Defense attorneys for the former Vanderbilt University football players whose own cellphones show they participated in a dorm-room sex assault have placed blame on the elite Southern university, saying their clients’ judgment was warped by a campus culture where drunken sex was common.
The graphic evidence and testimony presented in court is all the more shocking because it shows that several others were at least partly aware that an unconscious woman was being taken advantage of or had enough evidence to show that something had happened to her, and did nothing to help her or report it.
That bystanders’ failure to act falls well short of the university culture Vanderbilt officials say they were trying to create on campus long before the morning of June 23, 2013.
It also hints at the enormity of the challenge facing colleges nationwide as they try to establish campuses where students are safe, everyone understands the rules, and entire communities work together to make sure such crimes don’t happen.
“I think we need to think about the range of bystanders who could have intervened before they got into that dorm room,” said Jane Stapleton, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on intervention programs. And by not calling for help when the woman was seen lying unconscious and naked in a hallway afterward, the other athletes made such behavior seem normal, she said.
The U.S. Department of Education issued its most specific guidance yet for how schools should handle sex assault complaints in 2011, and colleges including Vanderbilt updated their policies. Meanwhile, college women increasingly took matters into their own hands, networking with each other and supporting a national campaign to file Title IX complaints claiming their schools were mishandling cases. After these gang rape charges were filed in 2013, Vanderbilt became one of dozens of universities subject to more intense investigation.
Sarah O’Brien, who spearheaded the Title IX complaint against Vanderbilt, said she’s not at all surprised at the testimony showing how many people failed to help. Many at Vanderbilt and elsewhere tend to look the other way, she said.
The first to be tried are former wide receiver Cory Batey and star recruit Brandon Vandenburg, whose dorm room became the scene of the alleged crimes. Also charged with aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery are Brandon Banks, who played defensive back, and Jaborian McKenzie, a former receiver for the Commodores. All have pleaded not guilty.
Banks and McKenzie will be tried later, and were not provided with plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation, prosecutors said.
Defense attorney Worrick Robinson sought on Friday to prove a point he made as the trial opened: that Batey had been a promising young player before he “walked into a culture that changed the rest of his life.”
“Is there anything in their culture that might influence the way they act or the way they think or the way they make decisions?” Robinson asked his expert James Walker, a neuropsychologist who said Batey claimed to have had between 14 and 22 drinks that night.
“Yes, at that age peer pressure is critical,” Walker responded, “because you’re just going out on your own, you’re not fully an adult, you’re not fully a child. … You tend to take on the behavior of people around you.”
Prosecutors objected, and Walker ultimately acknowledged that he had done no scholarly work on Vanderbilt’s campus culture.
But even prosecutors presented testimony and evidence showing that many people failed to intervene. Batey’s defense, in particular, has suggested that drunken sex was commonplace because nobody apparently called for help when Vandenburg was seen carrying the unconscious student into the dorm.
Cameras showed a crowd gathered around as Vandenburg pulled up to the dorm in a vehicle with his unconscious date. At least five students later became aware of the unconscious woman in obvious distress, but did nothing to report it. Rumors quickly spread around campus, and still no one apparently reported it.
The assault might have gone unnoticed and uncorroborated had the university not stumbled onto the closed-circuit TV images several days later in an unrelated attempt to learn who damaged a dormitory door. They were shocked to see players carrying an unconscious woman into an elevator and down a hallway, taking compromising pictures of her and then dragging her into the room.
Prompted by the video, school authorities contacted police, who found a digital trail showing one of the players sent videos about what they were doing as it was happening.
The woman — a neuroscience student who had been dating Vandenburg before the alleged rape and returned to Nashville to testify — cried softly and the jurors stared wide-eyed as a detective narrated the videos Vandenburg shared and described the pictures taken on their cellphones.
She testified that she woke up in Vandenburg’s dorm room bed the next morning with her clothes on, and still has no memory of anything that happened after Vandenburg passed her drinks the night before, some of which were purchased for the players by a team booster.
Dillon van der Wal, who just completed football season playing tight end at Vanderbilt, testified that he didn’t tell anyone despite knowing the woman socially and seeing her unconscious in the hallway, with red hand marks on her buttocks.
“You thought well of her, you cared for her welfare,” defense attorney Fletcher Long said. “When you encountered her in the condition you found her with the marks you testified to, you called the police?”
“I did not,” van der Wal, replied.
Vanderbilt officials say school rules go beyond federal requirements on sexual violence responses. The student handbook clearly lists resources available to victims and encourages anyone who witnesses possible sexual misconduct to take action and report it to law enforcement. However, university spokeswoman Princine Lewis said Friday that rulebook is “meant to encourage reporting. It does not require it.”
Closing arguments are expected on Monday.
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