Truth Without Consequences?

Black U.Va. law student admits he made up police harassment story that prompted intense investigation. The university won't press charges against him.
May 9, 2011

Many campuses experience bigoted incidents of various types, but for many years now, hoaxes have emerged as well. Typically these cases involve undergraduates who make charges and -- after some period of time -- are found to have faked whatever it is they said happened to them. The fake hate crimes tend to frustrate just about everybody on campus. Minority students worry that truthful complaints in the future will be doubted. College officials bemoan wasted time and money investigating a fake report, and damage done to the reputation of the institution or individuals.

When a fake report is filed with the police, it is also can be a violation of the law. A gay student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was charged last month with filing a false police report after authorities determined that he had made up his story of being attacked for being gay -- a story that generated considerable concern on the campus.

Another hoax was uncovered last week at the University of Virginia -- and in this case, the university is being criticized for opting not to press charges against the black law student who made up a story about police harassment in the form of apparent racial profiling. The student -- Johnathan Perkins -- is scheduled to receive his degree May 22.

Perkins made his allegations in a letter to the editor of the U.Va. law school's student newspaper, Virginia Law Weekly. He sent a copy to the university's police department, which treated the essay as a formal complaint. Perkins described walking home from a bar review session and being stopped by the flashing lights of a University of Virginia police car. Two white officers, he said, questioned him, told him that he "fit the description of someone we're looking for," made fun of him as a law student, frisked and searched him, refused to give their names and badge numbers, and then followed him home after saying he was free to leave.

Invoking the names of victims of police brutality, such as Abner Louima, Perkins wrote that he knew he could not resist. "I knew that there would be no remedy for the indignity that I suffered at the hands of two of the University of Virginia’s 'finest.' " he wrote. "As I stood there, humiliated, with my hands on the police car, my only thought was: 'There is nothing I can do to right this wrong. I have absolutely no recourse.' I hope that sharing this experience will provide this community with some much needed awareness of the lives that many of their black classmates are forced to lead."

As soon as the letter was published, the university's police department began an investigation, bringing in some outside experts to assist. Perkins gave several interviews to local reporters, and many students said that they were outraged by the way he said he had been treated.

On Friday, however, the university released a statement announcing that the investigation found that Perkins had made up the story. The university's statement (not available on the university's website, but posted on the Virginia Law Weekly's Facebook page) quoted Perkins (without naming him) as saying that he fabricated the story. "I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct," he said in a written statement. "The events in the article did not occur."

The university said that its investigation included a review of all relevant dispatch records, personnel rosters, police radio tapes, surveillance video from the university's cameras and those of businesses near where the incident was alleged to have taken place, and interviews with Perkins. The university said that Perkins cooperated in interviews and admitted the fabrication as the "facts of his story came into question."

The part of the statement that has attracted the most discussion was a quote from Michael A. Gibson, the chief of police at Virginia, who announced that he would not press criminal or other charges.

"I recognize that police misconduct does occur," he said. "Pressing charges in this case might inhibit another individual who experiences real police misconduct from coming forward with a complaint. I want to send the message just how seriously we take such charges and that we will always investigate them with care and diligence."

The University of Virginia is known, among other things, for an honor code in which any potential violation is taken seriously -- and the only punishment for transgressions (one of which is lying) is expulsion. The U.Va. press release conveyed the idea that the "university doesn't even seem particular[ly] upset," in the words of a blog at The Atlantic. Many other blog posts go further, suggesting that the university's honor code philosophy is being ignored and that white students in a similar situation would be facing legal and honor code consequences.

A university spokeswoman, however, said that the statement about the university not pressing charges doesn't mean that someone else couldn't press charges of honor code violations. "Anyone in the community can submit an honor charge," she said. However, she added that any investigation of an honor code violation would be confidential -- and that the university could not confirm or deny any such inquiry. Perkins did not respond to e-mail messages seeking comment.

Websites frequented by lawyers and law students featured considerable debate this weekend about the university's handling of the case. Many of the comments suggest a relationship between the university's decision not to seek charges and Virginia's commitment to affirmative action. "If UVA lets this man graduate, they might as well just throw out the honor code. If he is allowed to graduate, after this egregious violation, the university is telling its students that it only applies the rules to 'some' groups of individuals. Equal protection AND equal punishment!" wrote one commenter on the blog Above the Law.

Others, however, cited the case of Stephen Glass (who is white), who after fabricating articles for The New Republic went on to attend and graduate from Georgetown University's law school, with several saying that these cases really raise the question of why law schools don't view serious lies as disqualifying.


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