Trial by Fury — Finalist, Dramatic/General Fiction.
Trial by Fury — Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award
“Make room for the lady with the money!” Theodora Constantine squeezed down the hallway with their payment.
The conference room at Constantine and Associates held a table that seated thirty-two. It wasn’t unusual for every chair to be filled during a strategy meeting, since Theo took only the most important, most visible civil litigation cases. Prominent clients, pressing social issues, nearly all related to women’s rights. In fact, the firm was predominantly women, and racially diverse, as were most businesses in Atlanta.
Today, the table was overflowing with congratulatory flowers and buckets of champagne on ice. Every major case culminated in this room, either with a celebration like this one or a soul-searching assessment that took on the pall of a wake.
Theo waved the courier’s envelope high above her head as she entered. “Whose turn is it to do the honors?”
All eyes fell upon paralegal Jalinda Smiley, a plus-sized African-American in her thirties, whose name bore no resemblance to her usual gloomy face. Of the forty-six people who worked in their high-rise office in downtown Atlanta, Jalinda was by far the quietest, the most mysterious. Superb at her job, she rarely interacted socially with her co-workers.
“You can skip me. Go to the next person.” Typical Jalinda, shunning the spotlight.
Theo had expected that and was ready with the next name. “Kendra Kershaw then. Step right up and tell us what we’ve won.”
Kendra, tall and angular, shimmied through the group to snatch the envelope. A striking, dark-skinned woman twenty years out of Emory Law School, she was a partner at the firm. Her caseload typically focused on issues of special benefit to women of color. She was taking the lead on their next big case, a class action suit charging BoRegards, a regional family restaurant chain, with wage theft.
She ripped open the envelope and read aloud, “Seven million, six hundred thousand dollars and zero cents.”
A cheer erupted around the room. That was their settlement with TNS Cable News on behalf of Teresa Gonzalez, a female reporter who’d been fired after breaking off an extra-marital relationship with the network’s lead anchor. Theo had argued the firing was the result of sex discrimination. The case had dragged on for over two years, with Theo demanding reinstatement, lost wages and punitive damages large enough to head off such behavior in the future. When it became clear from the evidence that TNS likely would lose in court, they’d negotiated a settlement. Constantine and Associates would collect a third of the total along with a subsequent check covering expenses. A handsome payday for a small firm like theirs, one that would bring a surge of positive publicity.
Corks popped one after another and clear plastic cups were filled to the brim. They’d share thirty minutes of revelry, after which most of the crew would get back to work on the wage theft case.
As Kendra waved the check around, Sandy Thornton snatched it out of the air. She’d been Theo’s accountant for ten years, and her miserly attitude was the reason the firm was on solid financial footing.
Theo raised her glass in a gesture to a young woman across the room, Sabrina Dawson, who’d served as her second chair on the case. An attractive brunette with an athletic body, she’d cut her teeth on last year’s sexual harassment suit against a defense contractor. Originally from Savannah, she had a charming demeanor that allowed her to connect with a jury of Southerners. After six years at the firm, she was bringing in her own clients and on track for promotion to partner.
And unfortunately, off-limits for anything else. Though Sabrina identified as bisexual, Theo didn’t need a sexual harassment suit of her own.
Philip Vogel, the other partner, and one of only five men in the entire office, clinked his cup against hers. “Another home run, Theo. You had them on the ropes from day one.” An avid triathlete, he could hardly express himself without sports metaphors.
“Come on, it was one of the most blatant cases I’ve ever seen. Jalinda could have won it.” In fact, she’d encouraged her favorite paralegal to go on to law school, but Jalinda was content to remain in the shadows. “That was a brilliant move, by the way, linking the anchor’s salary to punitive damages. It gave the jury a solid rationale.”
An expert in valuation, Philip worked on every litigation case to justify the amount of actual damages and punitive awards. He had a gift for knowing what a judge or jury would find reasonable.
No matter how important their casework, Theo was determined to keep the practice small and manageable, focusing not on billable hours but on the importance of their mission. “It’s a firm, not a farm,” she always said. A family atmosphere made for loyal employees who would stick around and grow. Together, they’d be judged by their body of work and the social strides they made, not their ambition.
On days like this, she considered herself the luckiest attorney in Georgia. Thanks to the dedicated work of her handpicked staff, she was, at thirty-nine, already a millionaire several times over, a luxury that allowed her to choose only those cases with the potential to shake up the status quo for women. Her high-profile work had made her a national celebrity and frequent guest on cable news. That notoriety, coupled with her made-for-TV looks, had once earned her a mention as one of People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People.
But she wasn’t without controversy. Her reproductive and lesbian rights cases always guaranteed rowdy pickets at the courthouse, as did her status as an out and proud lesbian. She took pleasure from knowing her victories and accolades made her critics’ heads explode.
As she sipped her champagne, Theo scanned the room for her longtime friend and advisor, Gloria Hendershot. Gloria, now in her mid-sixties and working as a part-time consultant, rarely missed a settlement celebration. A renowned women’s studies scholar from Atlanta’s Harwood University, she provided the research and historical context they needed to make their clients’ stories resonate. For plaintiff Teresa Gonzalez, she’d shown with statistics the difficulties women encountered in securing similar employment in the television news industry after having been let go.
“Have you seen Gloria this afternoon?” Theo asked.
Philip shook his head. “She said something about an alumni luncheon with the board of trustees. She was bummed when she heard the check was coming in this afternoon.”
“Coming through, coming through.” Theo’s administrative assistant Penny Lowrey held her arms out to part the crowd as she snaked her way across the room. “Theo, there’s this…a person in reception who says…they need to see you, and only you. But they won’t say what it’s about. And they won’t give their name.”
A person who was a they. Theo was intrigued, but she rarely spoke with walk-ins because she’d been burned twice by celebrity stalkers hoping for an autograph or photo. “Did you suggest they call back and get on my calendar?”
“There’s something different about him…or her, maybe. He’s kind of feminine…but trying not to be.” She leaned in close enough to whisper, “I think it might be a man transitioning from a woman.”
* * *
Celia Perone straightened her necktie and tucked a loose strand of hair back under her fedora. The disguise came courtesy of the theater department’s wardrobe, and was undeniably a ludicrous charade. She couldn’t risk being recognized, not at this critical point in her career.
“You can wait here. Ms. Constantine will be with you shortly.”
She gazed around Theodora Constantine’s plush office with interest. It had all the personal touches of someone in the lofty role of champion of women’s rights. A framed cover of Ms. magazine celebrating one of her victories…smiling photos with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Meryl Streep and Gloria Steinem. Those were in prominent positions behind her desk, clearly placed so potential clients would know how important she was.
As if the woman needed any more publicity. She was a fixture on cable news talking about her cases and providing expert commentary on issues relevant to women or the LGBT community.
The large mahogany desk held a laptop computer and phone, along with a small framed photo propped in the far corner. Against her better judgment, Celia stepped around the desk for a better look. It was Constantine with three young men. While the woman’s blond hair, cut to her collar in soft layers, set her apart, it was obvious the four were siblings from their strong jaws and deep-set, crystal-blue eyes.
Celia wondered if the men in the family had made their mark in the world the way their sister had. It took a special kind of upbringing to produce a woman capable of arguing before the Supreme Court at the age of thirty—albeit four years older than Sarah Weddington, who, at twenty-six, had argued the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. Constantine’s case was Crossman v. The Town of Jeffersburg, Georgia, which set a precedent regarding maternity leave. Jeffersburg had held open its city manager’s position until assistant manager Kimberly Crossman went on leave, after which they hired a man under her supervision, one who lacked her experience and qualifications.
What impressed Celia most wasn’t that Crossman was handed the promotion and back pay. Rather, the sweeping ruling had put cities across the country on notice that the practice would not be tolerated. That’s why Celia had come to Constantine and Associates—she needed someone to make waves, someone who could take on a case with a sledgehammer that would strike fear into every university in America.
Voices in the hallway startled her and she scurried from behind the desk to take a seat in one of the wingback chairs upholstered in deep green.
Constantine entered and closed the door. She was larger than life in person, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter. Already taller than most women, she wore heels that made her even more imposing. A navy blue dress, its high round collar draped by a string of pearls, hugged her slender body like a diver’s wet suit.
“Hello, I’m Theo Constantine. How may I help you?”
Celia took the offered hand, noticing the woman’s eyes as they drifted downward, likely in response to the incongruous softness of her skin against the absurdity of a man’s dress. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“Perhaps not,” she replied, a small smile turning up from the corner of her mouth.
“I look ridiculous, but I promise you there’s a good reason for this getup. I can’t let anyone know I’m here.”
The attorney guided her back to the chair, and instead of moving behind her desk, turned the adjacent chair to face her. When she sat, she crossed a leg comfortably and placed her hands in her lap as if ready to chat with an old friend. “In this day and age, it’s hardly unusual to see a woman dressed as a man…or vice versa. I already assumed you had a good reason.”
Even with her experience onstage in costume—playing everything from a medieval witch in MacBeth to a drag king in Victor Victoria—Celia couldn’t help feeling ridiculous in front of such an accomplished woman as Constantine. Especially since her disguise had crumbled the moment she opened her mouth.
“I was worried about security cameras. They’re all over your building. You never know who has access.” She listened to herself and sighed. “Shit, now I sound paranoid. Maybe I am.”
“What brings you here?”
“Okay, I’m an idiot.” Celia removed her hat and shook free her shoulder-length dark hair. Then she loosened her collar and tugged off the necktie in hopes of also shedding her lunacy. “I’m Dr. Celia Perone. I teach performance studies at Harwood University. The disguise is because I’m up for a promotion this year. Full professor. I can’t afford to jeopardize that, but I have to tell somebody what’s going on there. It needs to be stopped.”
“Something related to your employment?”
“No, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
It was unlikely Constantine had heard of Hayley Burkhart, a lovely, talented performance studies student with a smile so grand it could be seen from the balcony. Her suicide had come the same night the Harwood Hornets had won the national championship in basketball. Atlanta’s media, focused on the celebration, had relegated Hayley’s story to less than an afterthought.
* * *
Though she’d known all along Celia Perone was a woman, Theo was stunned by the transformation when she removed her meager disguise. There was something familiar about her face…the sparkling green eyes and dainty, round lips. However, the name didn’t ring a bell. She certainly would have remembered a woman so attractive.
“One of my students killed herself last week. They found her in the bathroom of her sorority house the night Harwood won the basketball championship. She’d slit her wrists and bled to death. Hayley Burkhart was her name. I don’t suppose you read anything about that?”
Theo had been in Tampa taking depositions from BoRegards executives for the wage theft case. She’d watched the game in the hotel bar with Kendra and several of the paralegals, some of whom were loyal alums. “No, I’m so sorry to hear that. I was in Florida last week. It’s difficult to keep up with local news when I’m on the road.”
“Not that you’d have noticed. Or that anyone else would,” Celia added bitterly. “Harwood obviously cares more about sports than the lives of its female students. Hayley came to me for help after she was raped.”
The mention of rape caused Theo’s light demeanor to shift. “Tell me what you know about the details.”
Celia visibly relaxed as she fell into her story, as though relieved to get it off her chest. “It happened a couple of months ago at Henderson Hall on campus. That’s the jock dorm. There was this big party after the Vanderbilt game, and Hayley went with one of her friends. Michael Fitzpatrick’s his name…he’s one of my students too.”
A story so profound surely had many layers. While Theo wasn’t concerned at the moment with specific details, she noted the degree to which Celia remembered them.
“The last thing she remembered from the party was running into a couple of her sorority sisters. She woke up the next morning in one of the common areas on the third floor. Her panties were gone, and she could feel that she’d been violated.” Her expression hardened to a snarl. “When she turned on her phone, the bastards had taken a picture of her half naked, sprawled out on the couch. She showed it to me.”
Cases like this one sparked a deep rage in Theo. Nonetheless, they were criminal matters for the prosecutor’s office. There was little—if anything—her firm could do. “Did she go to the police?”
“Yeah, but as soon as she told them where it happened, they backed off…said they couldn’t do anything without proof.” She drew a thumb drive from the pocket of her blazer. “So about a week later, her friend Michael got hold of a video from a secret list only the basketball team could see. It shows exactly what happened. It was three players. You can see them plain as day—Matt Frazier, D’Anthony Caldwell and Tanner Watson.”
Theo recognized all three names as stars on the Hornets’ national championship team. She took the drive and walked around her desk to insert it into the USB port on her laptop. “Is it possible this video is ambiguous? Or that it’s been edited in any way…perhaps to remove a segment where Ms. Burkhart suggested consent?”
“Just look at it!” Celia said sharply. Then with obvious contrition, she added, “No way she consented to this.”
The video, a mere twenty-three seconds long, was sickening, one of the starkest pieces of criminal evidence Theo had ever seen. A young woman lay prone on a couch—her eyes closed, mouth open and one arm hanging limply to the floor. There was no question she was completely out of it, incapable of consent.
A young man grunted and laughed as he hunched over her. From his distinctive shaggy red hair, this indeed was Matt Frazier, Harwood’s All-American point guard. The others—Caldwell and Watson—jostled in front of the camera arguing playfully over who was next.
“Hayley took this to the campus police as proof. You know what they said? That they talked to the players and all of them said she was into it, that she came on to them. That’s a bunch of bullshit. I knew her and it’s not who she was.”
As far as Theo was concerned, the video was damning proof of sexual assault. Someone in authority at the university needed to step in and force the campus police into action.
“Dr. Perone, you need to take this to the administration at Harwood. All the way to—”
“I did that. I thought they’d listen because they all know me from the faculty senate. We see each other at cocktail parties, for Christ’s sake.” She shook her head with disgust. “They wouldn’t touch it. As far as they’re concerned, the police looked into it and the case is closed. That’s why I came to you. You have to do something.”
Though she roiled at the desperation in Celia’s voice, Theo’s legal mind shot through several alleys of dead ends. With the young woman now deceased, it was difficult to imagine a legal cause of action.
“Look, Ms. Constantine. Hayley killed herself because of what they did—the guys who raped her, the cops who looked the other way…and then the assholes in the administration who wanted to make sure they got their basketball trophy.” Her voice shook with fury as her face reddened. “They threw her out like garbage. Until somebody makes them pay, no woman is safe at Harwood.”
“I get it,” Theo said, nodding pensively as she recognized the potential impact of this particular case. Coddling athletes who committed sexual assault was a national problem, its ramifications serious enough to warrant at least an assessment from her firm.
Wrongful death was difficult, if not impossible, to prove after suicide. From a financial standpoint though, they could inflict some damage. Frazier and Caldwell were projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and on the cusp of becoming multimillionaires. They’d probably settle quickly to avoid a high-publicity civil trial.
“It’s possible we could file a case against the individuals in this video…maybe get a settlement for Ms. Burkhart’s family. The administration though…that’s a much tougher case.”
“Even if they intimidated people into keeping quiet?”
“Hayley said somebody called her…warned her she could be expelled for making false allegations. And when I went to see Earl Gupton—he’s the chancellor—he’d called in Harwood’s attorney and the chairman of the board of trustees. I got freaked out so I recorded the whole thing on my cell phone, which was probably illegal.” She nodded toward Theo’s computer. “It’s on there too, that second file.”
Considering she’d come to the office in disguise, it wasn’t surprising she’d also made a surreptitious recording. “Actually, you’re in the clear. Georgia’s a one-party permission state. As long as you’re a participant in the discussion, you’re entitled to record it. You don’t need anyone else’s permission.”
“So you should listen to it. I’m telling you, it felt like an ambush. Once I realized they weren’t going to do anything about it, I mentioned maybe talking to Jack Trendall, the basketball coach. But they told me the attorney for the players was threatening a defamation suit, that I could be sued for telling anybody what Hayley said happened to her. They said I’d be personally responsible, that the university wouldn’t support me because they’d determined there was no wrongdoing.”
Theo was familiar with the tactic—a SLAPP suit, short for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Aggressive parties used them to compel someone’s silence under threat of a defamation suit.
“I can assure you their threats don’t legally bind you from talking about the allegations unless you know for certain they’re false,” she said, leaving her desk to return to the chair next to Celia’s. “Unfortunately, rape often comes down to ‘he said, she said.’ That’s a problem here because you have a group of men willing to back up each other’s claims that the sex was consensual against a woman who’s no longer here to speak for herself.”
“But it wasn’t consensual!” Celia’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the arm of her chair. “And now a girl’s dead!”
Theo recognized the righteous indignation. She saw it in the mirror every time she found herself up against a force that wouldn’t move. And it always made her more determined to push harder.
The problems with this case were practical—she had a weak cause of action and virtually no leverage within the jurisdiction. The insular nature of a university campus created barriers at every turn. Any campus police department could deliberately reject criminal complaints, thereby holding its crime rates artificially low so parents would believe their kids were safe. Harwood’s motive in this case was even more suspect—they may have deprived Hayley Burkhart of due process in order to ensure their players would be allowed to compete for a basketball trophy. Now they were protecting not only their reputation but their financial windfall from the championship.
“I get why you’re so angry at the system, Dr. Perone. It seems obvious a young woman you cared about was treated horribly. But I have to ask you…if everything were proven to have occurred exactly as you’ve described it, what would you like to see happen next?”
“I want the rapists in jail. I want the chancellor fired. And the chief of police too.” She pounded out her demands in the palm of her hand. “The chairman of the board of trustees too. They’re animals, every last one. And I want a promise from Harwood University that this will never happen again, that every girl who reports a sexual assault gets a fair hearing with the presumption that she’s telling the truth.”
In other words, she wanted to lay waste to the system and everyone responsible for it—a scorched earth approach. That happened to be Theo’s favorite strategy too, especially when she allowed herself to get emotionally involved in a case.
After a measured silence, she leaned forward and pressed her fingertips together. “I need to be honest with you here. Unless the university changes its position on investigating, I’m afraid it’s doubtful anyone will go to jail. It’s a question of jurisdiction.” With shared frustration, she presented their legal dilemma, which she drew from having represented a group of women two years ago who were arrested during a protest of Harwood’s decision to invite a misogynistic radio personality to speak on campus.
Celia threw up her hands. “But Harwood’s in the city limits of Atlanta. If the campus police won’t do anything, can’t the Atlanta Police Department step in?”
“Technically yes, but they probably won’t. It’s a professional courtesy. Harwood operates under a memorandum of understanding with the city and the county—any crime on campus falls under the university’s domain. If they don’t press charges, the criminal case usually dies there because nobody wants to come in and step on their toes.”
“Their own little fiefdom,” Celia groused.
“I’m afraid so. While we can’t force the police to take action, you could always try your luck with the district attorney’s office.” Though Theo seriously doubted the DA would risk alienating Harwood’s fan base during an election year. “I should warn you however…I believe she too will be reluctant to claim jurisdiction at Harwood unless she’s invited in by law enforcement or the board of trustees.”
The desolation on Celia’s face was crushing.
“As far as the administration goes,” Theo continued, “I’m not sure anyone can legally force a private university to fire its chancellor and board chair. Only the trustees have that power. It just isn’t something we can sue them for.”
“So that’s it? These players lie through their teeth and get away with rape? Those bastards are responsible for her death. All of them.” Celia abruptly collected her belongings as if to storm out.
“No, that doesn’t have to be the end of it,” Theo said, catching her arm and urging her back to her chair. For a case as egregious as this one, she was willing to dig deeper to explore what avenues of retribution might exist. “The video is compelling. It’s difficult to believe anyone could see it and not conclude Hayley was assaulted. But right now we have more questions than answers. I need to have my staff look into it to see what we can do.”
“Does that mean you’re going to take the case?”
There was no case. But Theo couldn’t bear to turn away someone as passionate as Celia Perone. A kindred spirit in the fight for justice and equality.
“Our practice is about women’s civil rights, Dr. Perone. We have experts who can turn this case inside out, people who can get to the bottom of what happened and find a way forward. We can’t make this right for Hayley Burkhart, but if we decide there’s a victory to be won for other women like her, we’ll take your case.”
Hank Maloney had literally hundreds of contacts in law enforcement, from the FBI in Quantico all the way to parking enforcement in Dekalb County. A former detective with the Atlanta Police Department, his ruddy complexion and gray crewcut gave him a veteran’s grizzled look younger cops respected. At sixty-two, he’d been with Constantine and Associates for seven years as their chief investigator. He had a knack for getting insiders to talk off the record, when they were most likely to inadvertently hand over information not available to the general public.
“I got nothing,” he grumbled as he tugged the wingback chair closer to Theo’s desk. One flimsy document was his total booty from a day on campus. “Just a copy of the suicide report. Nothing exceptional about it. The girl bled out in a shower stall sometime after midnight while everybody else was out partying in the street. Real neat-like so all the blood went down the drain. They didn’t find her until three a.m.”
“And nothing on record about the rape? Are you sure you got the date right? February third, the night Vanderbilt played Harwood here in Atlanta.”
“I checked it. I went backward and forward a whole month in case it got entered under the wrong date. Nada.”
As he leaned back in the chair, his bulging belly parted his sport coat, revealing what appeared to be a large coffee stain on his yellow shirt. That hardly bothered Theo as much as his gray stubble—not a fashion statement, but the product of several days without shaving. She preferred a more professional look around the office because the prominence of her cases and clients meant the press could show up at the drop of a hat. He resisted though, arguing that police officers were notoriously put off by slick suits. They had to trust him before they’d open up.
“But there’s definitely something fucked up about it,” he said.
She’d totally given up on policing his workplace language.
“I got this guy on the inside. A black kid, Bobby Hill, a rookie on their force. I worked with his pop at the APD back when Bobby was just a twinkle in his pants.”
And on cleaning up his euphemisms.
“Anyhow, I got Bobby to let me look over some of the other reports for that day. They get filed by number, and two-ninety-two was missing. If I had to guess, I’d say somebody pulled it.”
It wasn’t exactly a smoking gun, but the coincidences were adding up. “Did you notice the time?”
He checked his notes. “They wrote up a burglary in one of the dorms at eight sixteen a.m. and a scuffle over a reserved parking space at ten fifty. And here’s another screwy part—they couldn’t put their hands on the call logs for that day. I know from the reports that got filed which officers were on duty, but there’s no record of what they were doing between the burglary and the scuffle.”
Someone, it seemed, had gone to a lot of trouble to wipe out the paper trail.
He looked at her wearily. “So what’s the next step, chief?”
“Dr. Perone told me Hayley went to student health services as soon as she left the dorm. Apparently they did a rape kit, so we need to find out if they still have it. Since the cops didn’t bother to investigate, it ought to still be there.”
There were strict rules about the chain of custody for rape kits. If the police collected it for evidence to prosecute, they were required to cover the cost and there would be a receipt indicating who picked it up.
Theo scribbled a note and pushed it across the desk. “Take this to Sandy and see if you can pry some petty cash out of her, a thousand dollars. I don’t want that kit destroyed because nobody paid the bill. And make sure they retain it in proper storage.”
When he left, she added the suicide report to the file that contained Celia’s thumb drive and her written statement on everything she could remember about her meetings with Hayley. Now convinced the school had covered up a crime to protect its players, Theo wanted badly to take this case.
Celia had stuck her neck out to right a wrong. Theo responded to that kind of courage, especially women helping other women.
She scrolled through the directory on her computer and opened the audio file Celia had made of her meeting with administration. Sonya Walsh, Harwood’s general counsel, was the one who’d spelled out the risks of a defamation suit, but Chancellor Gupton had added his own threat.
“Harwood faculty have a contractual obligation to protect the image of the university. Should these allegations result in a defamation suit, it would disparage Harwood’s reputation. The board of trustees might consider that grounds for dismissal.”
Celia hadn’t mentioned they’d also threatened her job.
She slapped the intercom button on her phone. “Penny, where’s Gloria? I haven’t seen her in three days.”
“I heard her arguing with Philip about five minutes ago. I’ll track her down and send her in.”
Arguing with Philip was one of Gloria’s favorite pastimes, and the subject hardly mattered. Their office debates—everything from economic philosophy to the perfect vintage of California red wine—were notorious. His Harvard training as a litigator withered when she buried him in factoids and obscure statistics off the top of her head. She’d have made an excellent attorney because she always played to win.
Two minutes later Gloria swept flamboyantly through the door. Fresh off a color appointment with her stylist, her ginger hair lit up the room like a blazing birthday cake. “I swear, it’s like I can’t step out of your sight without you having a panic attack. What is it this time?”
“Last time I checked, you still work for me, Gloria. I’m entitled to your infinite wisdom whenever I push this little button,” Theo shot back smartly, pointing to her phone. “I need your take on something. What’s the thinking on campus rape these days?”
“You mean, is it one in four or one in forty?” Dressed in flowing linen slacks, Gloria flopped into the upholstered chair and swung her legs over the arm, the pose of an insolent child rather than a sixty-four-year-old woman. “The studies vary, but suffice it to say it’s an unacceptable percentage of women, whether we’re talking inappropriate contact or violent rape. The problem is a lot of those incidents take place in off-campus housing, so the stats are murky. Are you specifically asking about what happens on campus?”
“I’m looking for the number of sexual assaults that fall under the jurisdiction of a typical university’s police force.”
She nonchalantly studied her nails as she answered. “That varies too. I don’t know about typical universities, but Emory reported twenty-six sexual assaults last year. Harwood had four.”
It constantly amazed her how Gloria was able to keep so much information at the ready. Besides her knowledge, she’d have a unique perspective on this potential case as a loyal alum of Harwood who’d taught in their women’s studies department for over thirty years.
“That’s a helluva difference. What do you think is behind it?”
“Hmm…both Southern Ivy, enrollment about the same.” The so-called Southern Ivy schools also included the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt and Tulane, all prestigious and private. “Harwood may have better security, but my guess is it’s tied to their policies prohibiting alcohol parties on campus. And strict enforcement. That’s the largest category, you know. Sexual assault while incapacitated. Some of those date-rape drugs are easier to buy than a bag of M&Ms. Apparently they’re pretty easy to hide in a party drink. But if you don’t have alcohol parties, you don’t have party drinks.”
Except Hayley’s rape had taken place at an alcohol-fueled party on campus, and Celia was adamant she’d been drugged.
“Some schools use their honor court, which is made up of fellow students. Harwood does that, I think, as long as it’s not a violent incident. Students can be suspended or even expelled, depending on the circumstances.”
“Hunh…I wonder if they consider it violent if the victim’s unconscious and can’t fight back.” It was a rhetorical question, as it was clear Harwood didn’t even consider what happened to Hayley an assault. “Is it possible some schools don’t take reports as seriously? Maybe their numbers are deflated by their refusal to prosecute.”
“Well of course,” Gloria answered with a huff, as if even an idiot knew that. “It’s an out-and-out conflict of interest to ask colleges to report their own rape statistics. If parents knew what the real numbers were, they’d never let their daughters go to school there.”
Theo took no pleasure from sharing Celia’s story, plus the details Hank had discovered about what appeared to be a deliberate coverup. By the time she’d gotten through the narrative, Gloria was mournfully silent, no doubt stewing about the actions of the institution where she’d spent more than half her life.
“I have a video of the assault…it’s pretty graphic. There’s no way anyone could look at this and call it consensual.” She swung the laptop around and clicked it to play.
When the clip ended, Gloria sprang from her chair and started to pace, as if ready to spring into action. “That’s one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen. What kind of person films a rape like it’s a souvenir?”
“Someone who ought to be in jail.”
“We need to take this straight to Earl Gupton. He’s a friend of mine, you know. One of the kindest, most honest men I’ve ever met. I’ll make an appointment for us. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, it’s Earl.”
“Forget Gupton. I’ve also got him on tape blowing it off. Worse than that, he and Norman Tuttle—and Sonya Walsh too—practically threatened Dr. Perone’s job if the allegations got repeated. If I had to guess, I’d say they wanted this buried because those guys were basketball players. The rape happened right before the NCAA tournament.”
Gloria scrunched her nose with obvious distaste at the mention of the board chair. “I never liked Tuttle. He spits when he talks.” She took a long moment to absorb the news, a mar on the university she so loved. “I have a feeling this is going to get very ugly, Theo.”
“I know, but we can’t just let it go. Not with all this evidence. They did this to her—the players, the cops, the administration. They might as well have held the knife that slashed her wrists.”
“Causing a suicide? Won’t that be tough to prove?”
“I’m afraid so. I looked for some wiggle room in the Appling decision. Harwood had to know Hayley would suffer emotionally if she didn’t get justice. We could argue that makes it foreseeable.”
“Fine, but since when is wrongful death in our wheelhouse?”
Theo played the rape clip one more time. “Maybe it’s time we put it in our wheelhouse. Somebody has to answer for this woman.”
* * *
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