April 3, 2013

EDITORIAL: Balancing the Rights of Victims and the Accused

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Earlier this week, a Cornell student was arrested and charged with first degree rape. According to court documents obtained by The Ithaca Journal, the victim was asleep in her girlfriend’s room when Peter Mesko ’13 entered uninvited, climbed into the bed and raped her. The news of a Cornell student being accused of such a terrible crime in our community is devastating — even more so in the wake of a series of sexual assaults committed on or near campus this fall. However, what is also troubling is Cornellians’ seeming readiness to weigh the rights of one party over the other in cases of sexual assault.

The Sun’s report Tuesday of Mesko’s arrest produced a firestorm of reactions by commenters on our website and on social media. The polarity and extremity of many of the opinions that have been expressed is alarming. Many have spewed vilely sexist platitudes, jumping without hesitation to Mesko’s defense or engaging in outright victim-blaming or disbelief. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some were quick to crucify the man before the facts emerged Wednesday. Many arrogantly condemned anyone who was unwilling to assign Mesko guilt before learning what evidence the police had against him.

Rape culture does not originate from one side or the other alone. It is caused by the warring of two extremes: those who ignore the epidemic of sexual violence against women, and those who deny the men they accuse of innocence until proven guilty. Victims who report sexual assaults should be believed, while simultaneously, the accused should be afforded due process and a fair trial. It is a tough balance to strike, but it is imperative to the safety of all members of our society — women and men alike — that we strike it.

In the case at hand, the evidence against Mesko appears strong. The Ithaca Journal cited court documents indicating that the victim and her girlfriend took a photograph of her attacker and subsequently identified Mesko by name. The results of the rape kit collected at the hospital after the assault may further implicate Mesko in the crime. A guilty verdict could prove those at Cornell who prescribed guilt to Mesko before the release of this information correct. But that will not render appropriate those people’s display of utter disregard for the rights of the accused.

Exercising prudence in sexual assault investigations and trials does not weaken anti-rape efforts; it bolsters them. A single wrongful conviction can be more harmful to the movement to eliminate rape culture than 10 acquittals. It fuels the fire of ignorance that leads to victim-blaming and making excuses for perpetrators of sexual assault. Whether or not Mesko is found guilty in this particular case, our community should take care to avoid inadvertently fanning those flames.