Five William Paterson University (WPU) students who were arrested for sexual assault and barred from WPU’s New Jersey campus last November have had their criminal charges dismissed after a grand jury declined to indict them last week. They aren’t in the clear yet, though—university president Kathleen Waldron has stated that the university “has its own student conduct process that is independent of the state’s legal proceedings.”
There’s reason to be concerned, however, about whether the accused students will receive a fair hearing. According to NorthJersey.com, Waldron remarked after the alleged attack that she was “angry and dismayed that this crime was committed on our campus and allegedly by students.” But Ron Ricci, counsel for one of the accused students, argued that the evidence demonstrated that no sexual assault occurred at all and called it “outrageous that these young men had to go through the publicity they had to go through.” Laura Sutnick, an attorney for another student, approved of how prosecutors handled the case but criticized the university:
She praised the prosecutor who handled the case, Lisa Squitieri, adding that the Prosecutor’s Office conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations. Sutnick alleged that the William Paterson police did not interview key witnesses that had been interviewed by defense attorneys and did not appear to look for evidence that might have cleared the defendants.
“William Paterson never did a proper investigation,” Sutnick said. “I don’t think they looked for exculpatory evidence.”
We hope this isn’t true, but experience with “investigations” of campus crimes tells us there’s a good chance it is. If WPU’s disciplinary procedures against the five students are going to continue, the university must investigate and consider all the evidence, exculpatory or otherwise, including allowing witnesses to testify in the students’ defense. Sutnick has said that her client is already struggling with the effects of negative publicity, and the ramifications for the five students will only get worse if they are kept out of the university permanently. Such a result is deserved in cases where the accused students are, in fact, guilty—but in determining whether they are, investigators and fact-finders cannot presume guilt and accept only evidence that supports this finding.
FIRE will be watching for further developments.