Plea in Baylor rape case sends a toxic message

Baylor University is an emblem of pride in Waco, Texas. But the justice system in Waco has a problem: It sti...

Posted: Dec 14, 2018 12:26 AM
Updated: Dec 14, 2018 12:26 AM

Baylor University is an emblem of pride in Waco, Texas. But the justice system in Waco has a problem: It still can't tell a victim from a criminal.

The Texas city, often called the buckle of the Bible Belt, tends to consider Baylor a perfect manifestation of the community's Christian beliefs. Baylor's "Guide to Community Living" explicitly forbids pornography, "obscene material on computers" and posters with depictions of full or partial nudity, and its policy on sexual conduct states that "it is expected that Baylor students, faculty and staff will engage in behaviors consistent" with a "biblical understanding ... that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity."

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In 2002, the school disciplined 50 students who posed, fully clothed, for Playboy magazine in a photo shoot with female students in bikinis at an off-campus sand volleyball court.

One co-ed was suspended for posing nude, even though her picture did not appear in the publication. And when the men's magazine showed up at a Waco hotel four years later for a similar project, Baylor officials sent an email to students telling them they could face a warning or even expulsion for participation because associating with the magazine would be considered a violation of the school's code of conduct.

The Bible Belt, however, seems often to be unbuckled. The university, busily policing student sexuality, has had its reputation harmed by a rape culture, and Waco's prosecutors have shown a willful hypocrisy in their version of justice for the victims.

A young California woman surely could have been thinking about both Baylor's and Waco's moral contradictions when she listened to a state district judge allow her accused rapist to accept a plea bargain that allowed him to walk free with no prison time. Referred to in court documents as "Donna Doe," she was a 19-year-old student when she alleged Jacob Walter Anderson, a fraternity president at Baylor, drugged and raped her, and then left her for dead.

But Anderson's deal, which allowed him to plead no contest to a lesser charge, makes a mockery of Waco's and Baylor's religious standards, and of the law. He agreed to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint, three years' probation, a $400 fine, and psychological and substance abuse treatment; his name will not be included on state lists of sexual offenders.

The victim's attorney, Vic Feazell of Waco, was astounded. "I've been at this a long time and I've never seen anything like this," Feazell told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It stinks to high hell."

Although Ms. Doe appeared in court to confront Anderson, the assistant district attorney, Hilary LaBorde, and District Attorney Abel Reyna, were absent from the proceedings, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported. LaBorde issued a statement in response to public protests and online petitions seeking stronger punishment for Anderson.

"Given the claims made publicly, I understand why people are upset," the statement read. "However, all of the facts must be considered and there are many facts that the public does not have."

But the public did have the sworn statement of the victim, who spoke in disturbing terms about what she says happened to her and how those events drove her away from Waco and Baylor, a place where she said she "would love to have stayed" but for the trauma she endured.

"Jacob Walter Anderson took me to a secluded area behind a tent and proceeded to violently and repeatedly rape me," she said in a victim impact statement. "He repeatedly raped me orally and (vaginally) while choking me, gagging me and physically forcing my body into positions so he could continue to rape me." She added that he is "now free to roam society, stalk women, and no one will know he is a sex offender."

The public certainly has enough information to conclude unequivocally that preaching does not equal practice.

The allegations against Anderson came shortly after two Baylor football players were convicted of sexual assault in 2014 and 2015 and one month before the victim in one of those cases sued the school, alleging officials failed to investigate her assault. In 2017, another woman, "Jane Doe," also sued the university, accusing it of being "indifferent" to her claims that players videotaped her gang rape in 2012 as part of a "bonding experience."

A failure to deal with the sexual culture of the football team cost the coach, Art Briles, his lucrative job; the university president (and former independent counsel who investigated Bill Clinton), Kenneth Starr, was removed as president and resigned as chancellor, and the athletic director resigned.

They did not exactly adhere to the school's Christian principles. Chip and Joanna Gaines, the stars of HGTV's hit show "Fixer Upper," might be able to remodel, fix and flip houses and give Waco a touch of TV glamour, but it's the town's treatment of rape culture that really needs a makeover.

Perhaps the school has learned a bit from past experience; Anderson was expelled and his fraternity was suspended by the university after he was charged with four counts of sexual assault. But it's hard in a place like Waco to untangle town from gown; what message will Anderson's deal send to current and future students and administrators in a community already marked by its dismissal of assault survivors?

Hypocrisy about violence and the betrayal of espoused hometown values is not a recent development in Waco. The city that claims to have been built on a religious foundation, where a young pharmacist invented the Dr. Pepper formula, is also the same place where Branch Davidian leader David Koresh found his comfort and established his doomsday cult, and also the site of a 1916 lynching that led in part to the first federal anti-lynching law. Maybe because it is situated along the Balcones Escarpment, where geologists say that "the South ends and the West begins," Waco struggles with identity issues.

More than a century after that lynching, the prosecutors in the Jacob Anderson case in Waco are still sending a message that the law can do whatever it wants. Rape does not appear to be truly punishable, and the definition of a crime continues to undergo a rewrite.

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