by Timothy Bella
For Caleb Warner, weekends still revolve around sports and hanging out with his friends. But life hasn’t been so carefree in the four years since he met a young woman.
“We met at a party,” Warner told America Tonight. “And, I don’t know, we just kinda made eye contact. And, you know, one thing led to another.”
On Dec. 13, 2009, Warner, then a junior at the University of North Dakota, attended a party thrown by his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. There, he met a freshman who caught his eye. They played beer pong in the basement of the fraternity house, later making out. Soon after that, they would head into a side room to have sex. When they were done, Warner says they exchanged numbers and went their separate ways.
“I liked her,” Warner said. “She was, she was fun. She was a fun person to hang out with.”
Warner said he and the freshman were “sexting,” and that both of them were keen on hooking up again. Later in the week, she came over to his house off campus to watch a movie. After they started kissing, Warner says they went up to his room and had sex. Holding her in his arms, the freshman suggested to Warner about the idea of him being her boyfriend. He told her he wasn’t sure, but enjoyed hanging out with her.
The next morning, they had sex again before Warner drove her home. He said he received a text later on from the freshman. “Don’t ever talk to me again.”
After the holiday break, an administrator pulled Warner out of class. To Warner’s surprise, he was asked about that night in mid-December, the night he watched a movie with his new freshman friend. After learning why he was pulled out of class, Warner called his mother.
“When he told me what he had been accused of, I felt like somebody hit me in the stomach,” said his mother, Sherry.
According to the incident report, the young woman filed a sexual assault charge with the university against Warner. The report stated that she requested a rape kit from a local hospital.
“That night, I was sexually assaulted by someone I thought was a friend,” she said in the statement. “The experience was brutal and being completely sober, and knowing what exactly happened made it worse.”
Two weeks later, Warner faced a disciplinary hearing on campus, which would ultimately decide his fate. He had a lawyer, but Warner said the attorney was not allowed to speak. He said he wasn’t allowed to question his accuser. During one point of the accuser’s story, she ran out of the room crying.
“I knew she was lying,” Warner said. “I mean, everything she said, it just wasn’t true and it was opposite of what had actually happened.”
A ‘preponderance of evidence’
As correspondent Chris Bury points out in his report airing Thursday on America Tonight, the standard of guilt was far lower than for a criminal courtroom. In Warner’s case, he says a “preponderance of evidence” was in effect. A student is found guilty not if his or her guilt is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but simply if it’s “more likely than not.” Only slightly more than 50-percent belief in guilt is required.
The lower bar isn’t just an isolated situation at North Dakota. In fact, it’s the standard for nearly all colleges. In 2011, the Department of Education advised schools that “preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.” Schools that don’t comply with the rule are at risk of losing their federal funding.
The federal standard does no favors for accused students like Warner. In February 2010, the University of North Dakota student relations committee found Warner guilty. As part of his punishment, he was banned from campus for at least three years.
During his final comment to the university committee, Warner, overwhelmed with emotion, broke down.
“I remember I dropped to my knees and then I just – that’s when I really lost it,” he said.
Immediately after the university found him guilty, Warner, already branded a rapist on campus, began to worry about even more serious consequences with the Grand Forks Police Department. But there was hope. As it turned out, the woman had filed a complaint with the police department, but a detective concluded that she had lied. In May 2010, local police discovered that she had given different accounts to witnesses and had “sent Caleb a text message days after the party that indicated that she wanted to have intercourse with him.”
When police issued an arrest warrant for the woman, she left the school and the state of North Dakota, and never returned. America Tonight tried to find her, but did not.
Vindicated but not welcome
When the University of North Dakota refused to drop the on-campus rape charges against Warner after the false accusation came to light, Warner’s mother, Sherry, changed their minds. America Tonight
With the new information, Warner thought the university would allow him back. But the university rejected a call for a new hearing, stating that Warner did not file within the required five class days after the initial sanction was announced. After that, the university rejected Warner’s appeal for a second time, stating that the police complaint and warrant against the accuser “would not be substantial new evidence,” adding that the complaint “would be an unproven allegation.”
From then on, it became the mission of Caleb’s mother, a former union leader, to pressure the university. She launched a campaign with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Her efforts paid off. In October 2011, the provost found that the university’s decision to not reopen Warner’s case was “inconsistent with the minimum demands of fundamental fairness.” Nineteen months after the university accused Warner of rape, his sanction was “vacated,” clearing him of all charges.
The university did not respond to America Tonight’s request for comment.
Now, it is too painful for Warner to think of, or even see, the university.
“I don’t like driving by the university,” he said. “I don’t like driving by the campus.”
Warner’s life is different now. He said he has a good job, but he never got his degree after the painful detour stemming from one night changed his life forever. The incident, and everything that followed, he said, convinced him that due process ends when students set foot on campus. Warner also hopes that maybe one day, his accuser will face justice.
“If she ever comes back to North Dakota,” Warner said, “I think she should have to face the charges that were against her.”