Despite its many painful and unseemly aspects, the Kobe
Bryant rape case and the media storm surrounding it have
drawn attention to a severely neglected problem: false
In her recent Daily Journal column, high profile
feminist professor Wendy Murphy dismisses the problem of
false accusations as an "ugly myth", and calls for
"boiling rage" activism to address what she perceives as
the anti-woman bias of the criminal justice system.
Like many victims' advocates, Murphy cannot seem to fathom
the possibility that Bryant could be innocent.
However, research shows that false allegations of rape are
According to a nine-year study conducted by former Purdue
sociologist Eugene J. Kanin, in over 40 percent of the
cases reviewed, the complainants eventually admitted that
no rape had occurred (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol.
23, No. 1, 1994). Kanin also studied rape
allegations in two large Midwestern universities and found
that 50 percent of the allegations were recanted by the
Kanin found that most of the false accusers were motivated
by a need for an alibi or a desire for revenge.
Kanin was once well known and lauded by the feminist
movement for his groundbreaking research on male sexual
aggression. His studies on false rape accusations,
however, received very little attention.
Kanin's findings are hardly unique. In 1985 the Air
Force conducted a study of 556 rape accusations.
Over one quarter of the accusers admitted, either just
before they took a lie detector test or after they had
failed it, that no rape occurred. A further
investigation by independent reviewers found that 60
percent of the original rape allegations were false.
The most common reasons the women gave for falsely
accusing rape were "spite or revenge", and to compensate
for feelings of guilt or shame (Forensic Science Digest,
Vol. 11, No. 4, December 1985).
A Washington Post investigation of rape reports in
seven Virginia and Maryland counties in 1990 and 1991
found that nearly one in four were unfounded. When
contacted by the Post, many of the alleged victims
admitted that they had lied.
It is true, of course, that not every accuser who recants
had accused falsely. But it is also true that some
who do not recant were not telling the truth.
According to a 1996 Department of Justice Report, of the
roughly 10,000 sexual assault cases analyzed with DNA
evidence over the previous seven years, 2,000 excluded the
primary suspect, and another 2,000 were inconclusive.
The report notes that these figures mirror an informal
National Institute of Justice survey of private
laboratories, and suggests that there exists "some strong,
underlying systemic problems that generate erroneous
accusations and convictions."
That false allegations are a major problem has been
confirmed by several prominent prosecutors, including
Linda Fairstein, who heads the New York County District
Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit. Fairstein, the author of
Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, says, "there
are about 4,000 reports of rape each year in Manhattan.
Of these, about half simply did not happen."
Craig Silverman, a former Colorado prosecutor known for
his zealous prosecution of rapists during his 16-year
career, says that false rape accusations occur with "scary
frequency". As a regular commentator on the Bryant
trial for Denver's ABC affiliate, Silverman noted that
"any honest veteran sex assault investigator will tell you
that rape is one of the most falsely reported crimes."
According to Silverman, a Denver sex-assault unit
commander estimates that nearly half of all reported rape
claims are false.
The media has largely ignored these studies and experts
and has instead promoted the notion that only 2% of rape
allegations are false. This figure was made famous
by feminist Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book
Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Brownmiller was
relaying the alleged comments of a New York judge
concerning the rate of false rape accusations in a New
York City police precinct in 1974.
A 1997 Columbia Journalism Review analysis of rape
statistics noted that the 2% statistic is often falsely
attributed to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation, and has
no clear and credible study to support it. The FBI's
statistic for "unfounded" rape accusations is 9%, but this
definition only includes cases where the accuser recants
or the evidence contradicts her story. Instances
where the case is dismissed for lack of evidence are not
included in the "unfounded" category. Brownmiller's
credibility can be assessed by her assertion in Against
Our Will that rape is "nothing more or less than a
conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep
all women in a state of fear."
Murphy also contends that the criminal justice system is
stacked against women, and that the law reform initiatives
promoted during the past three decades have "failed to
make a bit of difference in the justice system's handling
of rape cases." In reality, feminist advocacy and
the now ubiquitous rape-shield laws have made an enormous
difference in the way the system treats rape cases.
Some of these changes have been fair, and have led to
greater protections for rape victims. However,
others have made it more difficult for men to defend
themselves, with at times horrifying consequences for the
For example, in December, the Arkansas Supreme Court
denied an appeal by Ralph Taylor, who is serving a 13-year
sentence for rape. The court held that evidence of
the victim's alleged prior false allegations of rape was
inadmissible because it was considered sexual conduct
within the meaning of the state's rape shield statute.
In that case, the defense proffered the testimony of two
friends of the alleged victim, both of whom claimed that
she had previously falsely accused another man of raping
her. The court added that admitting such evidence
could "inflame the jury."
In her book
Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join
Forces to Achieve True Equality, Boston Globe
columnist Cathy Young details numerous questionable
rulings in which potentially innocent men were prevented
from properly defending themselves by the rape shield laws
which Murphy endorses.
One of these cases concerns an 18 year-old Wisconsin boy
named Charles Steadman, who in 1993 was sentenced to eight
years in prison for allegedly raping an older woman.
Steadman was prohibited from revealing that his accuser
was currently facing criminal charges of having sex with
minors, and thus had an excellent reason to claim that the
sex with Steadman was not consensual. Such evidence
was deemed related to his accuser's sexual history and
In 1997, sportscaster Marv Albert was accused of assault
and battery during a sexual encounter with a woman with
whom he had had a 10-year sexual relationship.
Albert sought to introduce evidence that his accuser, who
had been in a mental hospital six weeks before the alleged
assault, had previously made false accusations against men
who had left her, as Albert, who was engaged to be
married, was planning to do. Albert's offer of proof
was denied, compromising his ability to defend himself.
Facing a possible life sentence, he chose to plead guilty
to misdemeanor assault.
Murphy's dogged attacks on
Ruckriegle as a veritable
"advocate for the accused" are also without foundation.
Far from being a black robed patriarch in league with the
defendant, Ruckriegle's rulings were reasonable and, if
anything, minimalist. It is not the rulings but the
reaction to them by victims' advocates and the media which
For example, Ruckriegle granted a defense motion that
Bryant's accuser would not be referred to as "the victim"
in court. Such labeling, as opposed to "alleged
victim" or "accuser", undermines the presumption of
innocence. However, this motion was hotly contested
by both the prosecution and by victims' rights
organizations, which filed amicus briefs and complained
that Ruckriegle's decision created an anti-woman
Ruckriegle also allowed Bryant to introduce evidence that
his accuser had had other sexual encounters in the 72
hours before her medical examination for the alleged
assault. Bryant's defense team contended that the
microscopic vaginal injuries the prosecution claimed were
suffered in the alleged assault could instead have been
the product of various consensual sexual encounters.
Media commentators labeled the 72 hour decision a
"bombshell for prosecutors" that "threatens all women",
and likened Ruckriegle to a man who has "tiptoed into a
Murphy is correct that rape is a horrible crime. But
false accusations of rape are every bit as horrible.
They are a form of psychological rape that can
emotionally, socially, and economically destroy a person
even if there is no conviction, especially for those of
less fame and fortune than Bryant. The stigma
attaches to the falsely accused for life. Few
believe them and few care. Prosecutors
systematically refuse to prosecute the perpetrators.
And victims' advocates like Murphy refuse to see falsely
accused men as victims, and instead work to minimize and
conceal the problem.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily
Journal and San Francisco Daily Journal
Marc E. Angelucci
also contributed to this article. He is a public interest attorney in Los
Angeles and is the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of
the National Coalition of Free Men.