Personal Foul













jennings
Alison Jennings and her parents

On the hard, wooden benches at the back of the Federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado, Alison Jennings sits straight-faced and composed, her blond hair pulled tightly into a ponytail. The 27-year-old has gotten good at holding her breath emotionally, just enough to keep herself together over the past years of court dates and hearings like this one in early May, 2004.

"I'm not as nervous this time," Alison says, "because I don't have to speak." It will be her attorney who will present the oral argument that his client's civil rights were violated when the City of Stillwater Oklahoma and its police department failed to properly investigate and bring charges against four Oklahoma State University (OSU) football players that Alison said gang raped her at a party in 1999.

Alison whispers with her attorney and then turns to her parents seated a row back to tell them that their case came up last on docket, which means about a three hour wait. Deborah and Phil Jennings register no surprise or annoyance at this news -- waiting for the opportunity to plead their daughter's case is something they know well.

"The good thing," Deborah says in a hushed voice about the limited time allotted to the attorneys to speak before the judges, "is that when you are the last one they usually let you go beyond your ten minutes."

But even that seems like grossly inadequate time to explain a sexual assault case so misconstrued that Phil concedes that their story could be the formula for a perfect made-for-TV movie: A small college town with a big football program, star players accused of rape, the good-ol'-boys network, destroyed evidence, and a victim left in the lurch. But here in Colorado, with its endless string of sex scandals from the Air Force Academy to Kobe Bryant to University of Colorado Buffalos, this plot-line has become almost too cliché for the local media to take notice. Victims' rights advocates and local law groups, however, see a different story, one about the interplay between athletes, violence, sex, and the culture that enables them.

The Roster

Marcellus Rivers now plays for the New York Giants and Alvin Porter plays for the Cincinatti Bengals, but on the night of Nov, 21 1999 they were in a bedroom with fellow OSU football teammates J.B. Flowers and Evan Howell, and 22-year-old sophomore Alison Jennings. In the hallway, Alison's roommate was furiously attempting to get into the room, but the door was blocked. Finally able to get in, Alison's roommate immediately took her to the hospital, where for seven hours Alison's statement was taken, along with a blood sample and a rape kit. Between the physical pain and the sobbing, Alison went home, showered and that afternoon, still having not slept, went to the Stillwater police department.

The OSU Cowboys are big business in Stillwater, not only economically for the city, but for the social framework of the community. Detective Robert Buzzard, for example, went to OSU on a baseball scholarship. As the police liaison to the athletic department, Buzzard was the officer who earlier in the year had given this same group of football players a lecture on how to avoid rape situations.

A lot was riding on the Big 12 team, especially with the biggest game of the year coming up. When Alison walked into the headquarters, she could already feel hushed comments and stares of officers. They asked her to write a statement. At no time, Alison says, was she advised of her rights, that she should see a rape-crisis councilor, or that one even existed. "Nobody ever told me what I could do," she says.

Then Detective Buzzard began what Alison says felt like an interrogation rather than an interview. Alison says Buzzard began the interview by saying he didn't believe her. She was told that witnesses at the party were not corroborating her story. It turns out the only witnesses that Buzzard was talking about were the four players themselves, who had already been interviewed by police at the coach's office. Unlike Alison's interview, none of these were taped. Told she didn't have a case, the traumatized student was then encouraged by police to sign a waiver of prosecution, which would prevent any criminal charges to ever be filed against her accused rapists.

"I felt very coerced in signing this waiver of prosecution," Alison says. And so an hour later she went back to the police station and tried to retract it, but police told her to return the next day. By this time, the story had been leaked to the press. The media hounding began. It didn't last long, however. The District Attorney soon announced he was declining to file charges against the players on account of Alison's waiver. Not long after, the accused players went on television and claimed what happened that night was consensual. That was that. The investigation was over before it had even begun.

"Even though [Detective Buzzard] was no longer a team member, he was still a team player," says Tamara Gowens, one of Alison's attorneys. "He just switched uniforms."

No 'I' in Team

Alison went to her parent's home in Seattle for Thanksgiving break, too dejected and ashamed to tell them what had happened to her. After dinner, her family sat around the living room watching OSU battle it out with rival Oklahoma University. Someone noted that four players had been suspended for one game due to "violation of team policy." Deborah wondered out loud what it could have been. "Well, something happened," Alison said to her mother. "These guys raped a girl."

Not until five months later did Alison -- depressed, listless and with failing grades -- tell her parents who that girl was. The Jenningses were devastated and outraged. Phil, a 1963 graduate of OSU, demanded meetings with the OSU president and the police department. He was shocked to find out that the school had no official policy to handle rapes, nor did they seem to want to deal with the situation now.

"They just stonewalled us," Phil says. "Their attorney wrote a letter that said, 'Oklahoma State University has no responsibility; we are taking no action.'" The school also required Alison talk to each teacher individually to specifically explain why she was flunking out in the Spring of 2000.

Phil wrote a scathing letter to the OSU Regents: "Why won't women report the crime? Because of people like you and the OSU administration… who will go to almost any lengths to protect the financial security of an institution that condones criminal behavior of the most heinous kind, particularly if the perpetrator is an athlete."

The family became more outraged when a private detective discovered that all the records of Alison's hospital visit had been destroyed, including the blood work and the rape kit. Evidence, like the videotape of Alison's interrogation, was missing from the police department. "I don't want to say conspiracy," Phil says, "But there was a collaborative effort to make this case go away."

The family had just about given up when Alison happened to come upon an article in Glamour magazine about Kathy Redmond of the Colorado-based National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. Redmond started the organization in the years after she was raped by a University of Nebraska player who later turned pro for the Giants. Redmond has long been a victim's advocate. Most recently, on April 13th, she testified before an independent panel established by the University of Colorado (CU) to investigate whether the CU football program used sex and alcohol as tool to recruit star players.

"Players are taught that women are objects, commodities," Redmond told the panel, "and that if you come to this school, you get women, you get sex." She went on to say that a "rape culture" exists within the CU Buffaloes, something she believes is rampant throughout college football programs nationwide.

Phil contacted her in the fall of 2000 and immediately Redmond began assisting the family. It took almost another six months before they could find an attorney that would take the case on contingent. In July of 2001, Hammond and Associates took on the case and filed a federal suit against all four players, as well as Detective Buzzard and the Stillwater police department.

They since have come to a settlement agreement with the four players, but the city still denies any culpability and is even counter-suing Alison for $8,000 in legal fees. The family themselves have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyer and travel fees. The Jenningses are now appealing an earlier decision by the Oklahoma courts that says they do not have enough cause to justify a trial.

Penalty Flag

The family's attorney, Mark Hammond, is at the podium. Because of the complicated nature of the case, Hammond's argument has multiple fulcrums and he is taking heavy fire from the three federal judges. Hammond points to the Oklahoma Victim's Rights Act, a statute that states police cannot discourage victims from pressing charges against their assailants.

The fact that Alison had a waiver of prosecution put in front of her in the hours after her rape is what baffles many criminal justice and law experts. According to Hammond, in the more than 50 sexual assault cases Detective Buzzard had dealt with throughout his career, Alison's was the only one involving football players and the only one where he used a waiver of prosecution. This amounts to a situation where an officer took a role of an advocate for the accused in the case, Hammond says, and the department's "egregious mistakes" impeded on Alison's constitutional rights to file criminal charges.

In Colorado, the Jennings case has been closely researched by the Colorado Women's Bar Association and the Social Justice Action Group from the Law Department at Denver University, both of whom have composed a brief in the hopes of using it in future hearings.

"Certainly, no one reporting an alleged crime to the police should be pressured to drop their complaint by police officers with ties to the alleged perpetrators of the crime," says Jeanne Coleman, President of the Colorado Woman's Bar Association.

Julie Nice, a Professor of Law at Denver University says that they became concerned by the recent rash of sexual assaults where government officials failed to hold perpetrators accountable. "In the football cases at CU and OSU and at the Air Force Academy, there's this very consistent pattern where the officials basically look the other way," Nice says. "And quite frankly when it's masculine sports like football or a masculine institution like the military, I think they're sending a message that basically suggests that there are some individuals that are unfairly, I think stereotypically, perceived as being more likely to engage, and possibly more entitled to engage in that kind of behavior."

At a moment's notice Debbie will shell out the numerous studies that survey the high occurrences of sexual assault within the military and so-called masculine team sports (no one hears accusations of gang-rape afflicting the golf or tennis team). The statistics most often referenced is from the 1995 Benedict/Crosset Study which found that male student-athletes comprised 3.3% of the population yet represented 19% of sexual assault perpetrators, and committed one in three sexual assaults at colleges. The same study also notes that the crime conviction rate for general population is around 80%, while athletes are convicted at a rate of 38%.

Statistics don't mean much in the halls of justice, however. The rule of law is rigid and slow-moving. It may take months for the 10th Circuit Court to come to a decision. Either way, the Jenningses are in for several more years of trials or appeals.

Outside the courtroom, Alison holds her poise while her parents talk to the attorneys. "Rape is the only crime in America where the victim is put on trial," her mother exhales loudly to the empty halls.

But when asked about her impressions, Alison blurts, "It's infuriating!" Waiting quietly while all the lawyers and judges bicker back and forth about her in third-person, she says, "You just want to stand, yell out and tell your side of the story."

But this isn't a TV drama where the judge bangs down the gavel decisively and victims leap up to the cheers of supporters. To Alison and her parents, justice looks more like concession and frustration. The Jenningses say they'll keep fighting, however, because for Alison and many rape victims it seems that the only one thing more difficult than speaking out is sitting silent.

Jared Jacang Maher, 24, is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. He is a Contributing Editor for Adbusters Magazine and is a print media correspondent for Free Speech TV, the nation's first progressive TV channel. Publicly-supported, independent and non-profit, Free Speech TV is available in over 11 million U.S. homes, airing 24 hours a day via satellite and part-time on 88 community access cable stations in 23 states. Check out FSTV's special election year coverage at www.freespeech.org

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