Comments by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe about a rape victim published in the weekly Cashiers newspaper two weeks ago have sparked protests from local and state groups that combat sexual violence, as well as individuals from the Cashiers community.
The news article, printed under the banner headline “Alleged sexual assault reported,” appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle. It included a blow-by-blow account, attributed to the sheriff, of the rape victim’s long evening of barhopping and heavy drinking in the hours leading up to two men following her home and breaking into her house. The 34-year-old woman told deputies one man raped her while the other waited for him to complete the act.
Critics have reacted angrily to the tone of Ashe’s comments. They said the sheriff seemed to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the woman’s rape claim. The news article also emphasized that several hours passed before the woman reported being attacked and discussed, at length, her level of alcohol intake that night.
“It painted the picture of someone who is lying, or who was to blame for anything that happened,” said Monika Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Now in Jackson County, if I’m a woman and I’ve been drinking or gone to the bar and been sexually assaulted, I know what’s going to happen if I report it.”
Ashe said he’d provided the Chronicle’s reporter a factual recounting as the victim relayed the situation to law enforcement. After the sheriff indicated that he had not read the article — “I know what I said, I don’t know what they printed” — a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News read the article from the Cashier’s paper, in its entirety, aloud to him during the course of a cell-phone interview late last week.
Ashe was asked whether he wanted to correct any inaccuracies or misquotes in the newspaper’s report. The sheriff neither disputed the accuracy of the article nor asserted that he’d been misquoted. Kelly Donaldson, editor of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, declined to comment, which is the policy of the newspaper’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga.
Sheriff: woman not at fault
Ashe emphasized that he did not intend to indicate that the woman’s barhopping brought on the sexual assault. A suspect, Efrai Ubera Morales, 30, of an Amethyst Drive, Cashiers, address, was arrested 16 days after the attack on a charge of first-degree rape.
“I’m not saying (the victim) went out and asked to get raped, but we can’t change the facts from what she told us,” Ashe said. “That’s the truthful statement from the victim.”
Hostler and other critics, however, said Jackson County’s top law enforcement leader and the way the newspaper article was framed crossed serious moral and ethical boundaries. In the end, according to Hostler’s assessment, an innocent victim appeared on the front page of her local, hometown newspaper (circulation 3,200) in substance, at least, judged responsible for a sexual assault.
The woman was not identified by name in the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle’s report, which is standard practice by most news organizations when reporting on sexual assaults. But in that small community in southern Jackson County, who she is and where she lives rapidly became public knowledge.
The article and the sheriff’s comments outraged Mary-Allyson Henson of Cashiers. She blames both Ashe and the newspaper equally for heaping further abuse on a woman who’d suffered through a sexual assault.
“There are no circumstances that would justify a woman being violated, period,” said Henson.
In fact, however, Henson said the victim was a friend who rarely goes out, and who had simply wanted to enjoy the evening celebrating another friend’s birthday.
The article in question
Almost from the beginning of the news article, the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle focused on the woman’s actions that night.
“Though the assault occurred at the home, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said that the night consisted of trips to multiple bars, which may or may not have been where the perpetrators encountered the victim,” the Chronicle’s article stated in the first paragraph.
The newspaper and sheriff also elected to tag the woman’s report an “alleged” sexual assault.
“It actually started at an individual’s house consuming alcohol,” Ashe was quoted as saying. “From there, the victim went to the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company, and from the brewing company it went to the Gamekeeper where a birthday party was going on for one of her friends. There was continued consumption of alcohol during that course.”
When the article was published, detectives were hoping to locate surveillance video that would reveal the suspect’s identity, which is perhaps why Ashe elaborated on the victim’s schedule that night. He did not say that, however. Ashe did defend the use of the word “alleged.”
“It is ‘alleged’ until we can prove that it happened,” Ashe told The Smoky Mountain News. He does not apparently agree that the use of the word “alleged,” when attached in this manner to a victim’s report of sexual assault, might cast doubts on whether law enforcement believed the woman involved.
Generally, newspapers use the word “alleged” when referring to someone charged with a crime. A suspect can allegedly commit murder, but the murder itself is not alleged. The murder happened. The only uncertainty is who did it. If arson was committed, or a theft occurred, those crimes are not alleged. They occurred and are treated as facts. A suspect later charged with the crime allegedly committed it until a court of law proves them guilty.
Ashe, via the Cashiers newspaper, then described the actual rape.
“She said that two Hispanic males entered her home,” Ashe told the Chronicle. “She was not sure how they got into the home; there was no forced entry. One of the Hispanic males forced her to the floor and had sexual intercourse with her in the bathroom area. … She was able to send a message from her cell phone to the friend, whose residence she was at previously, and said something to the effect that she was being assaulted.”
The newspaper reporter then wrote: “According to Ashe, it was not until the following morning when one of the victim’s friends convinced her to go to the hospital for a rape kit, around 6 a.m., that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was contacted in regards to the assault.
The article then quoted Ashe directly as saying: “’During his whole time, no one had contacted law enforcement: not when she was being followed, not when the assault occurred, not after she had a conversation with her friend on the phone who she spoke to. During none of this time had any law enforcement been contacted. It wasn’t until she had a female friend who she was talking to convince her that next morning around 6 a.m. that she (needed) to go to the hospital and be checked.’”
Later in the newspaper article, Ashe is quoted as saying the victim provided “very vague descriptions,” and that she knew one of the Hispanic males involved went by the alias or nickname of “Drug Boy.”
Brent Kinser, president of REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors, said in an email interview with the The Smoky Mountain News that he wasn’t “sure in whom I am more disappointed: the sheriff, Mr. Ashe, who made the statements, or the writer … who presented them in such a clearly accusatory way.”
REACH is a nonprofit that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Surely neither of these good men intended to imply that this victim had it coming to her, and yet the article reads in such a way that lends itself to precisely that interpretation. The only question here is the guilt or innocence of the perpetrators of this crime,” Kinser wrote. “The victim is only that, a victim, whether she decided to enjoy herself with friends at one location, or several, alcohol present or not. It is indeed painful to see yet another case of sexual violence in which a victim, in addition to all else, will now have to find some way to forgive herself, since according to this article, she behaved in such a way to invite the assault.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH, said that “victim blaming is definitely the issue here.”
“It was reported that there were trips to multiple bars, with extensive information on alcohol consumption,” Roberts-Fer said. “It leads one to believe that if you consume alcohol you deserve or can expect to be raped. Not only is this information irrelevant, it actually is giving false information to the public, by implying that if you don’t consume alcohol you can somehow avoid being raped. This is not true — anyone can be raped, under any circumstance, and the one responsible for the rape is, very simply, the rapist.”