In late January of this year, as frost covered the streets of Kansas, an officer at the Lawrence Police Department called a woman whose rape report he was investigating. He told her he’d received an anonymous tip, but couldn’t understand it. He needed her help to decode it. Thrilled, the woman rushed into the station house before her afternoon classes at the University of Kansas Law School. She later said the call made her feel “like I was being believed, for the first time.”
But when she arrived, the officer informed her there was no anonymous tip. In fact, police weren’t looking into her Sept. 28 rape report at all. All these months that she believed they were investigating her assault, they had in fact been investigating her—for allegedly making a false report. And now, she was under arrest.
Prosecutors would later charge the woman with three felony counts of interference with law enforcement, in a case that would span more than a year and consume every inch of her life. In a surprise move, the district attorney’s office recently decided to drop the case. But the woman says she is still struggling to pick up the pieces of her life.
“I think it’s every victim’s worst nightmare,” she told The Daily Beast. “I had thought this long process was over... and then everything was just completely shattered, ripped apart.”
“When you think about the entirety of it, from beginning to end,” she added, “it’s really unbelievable.”
The woman, who we are referring to by the pseudonym Emma, says she didn’t really want to make her report in the first place. Her friends—fellow law students who worked with rape victims and were concerned by her recollections of the night before—encouraged her to contact police, according to a motion filed by her attorney. Emma told The Daily Beast she only submitted to a police interview that day in order to preserve evidence, in case anyone else reported the man she was accusing in the future.
In a brief conversation with police that day, she told detectives what little she said she could remember: She had been drinking heavily the night before, and had awoken in bed with one of her law school classmates. Her recollections of the evening were limited and blurred. In later court filings, her attorneys said she even gathered her things to drive home, before the classmate—who we are referring to by the pseudonym John, since has not been charged with a crime—reminded her she had taken an Uber.
She texted a friend, saying she had “fucked up” and slept with a classmate, according to a police report. Later, she appeared to become more distressed. “Get here fast. I’m literally about to have a breakdown,” she wrote. Over the next 24 hours, her attorneys later said, memories came back to her in fragments: blacking out, waking up to her classmate on top of her, telling him to stop, blacking out again.
A rape kit taken that day documented bruising on Emma’s neck and arms, and tears on her vagina. But Emma told nurses she didn’t want to press charges. On her exam paperwork, she checked a box labeled “anonymous report”—sending her results to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for safekeeping, instead of to the Lawrence police for investigation.
Later, when Emma reported her case to her school’s Title IX office and told law enforcement that she might want to move forward, prosecutors used that inconsistency against her. What were her motivations for reporting the case to her school weeks later, after telling police she didn’t want to proceed? What were her motivations for reporting it in the first place, just hours after a classmate had threatened to “out” her for sleeping with John?
Emma’s case was a complicated one, the kind many prosecutors pass over to avoid the proverbial “he said, she said” dilemma. And happening as it did, within a 300-student subset of a suburban campus, it was enmeshed in college-town drama. Days before the alleged assault, Emma had been dumped by a boyfriend at the law firm where she worked. John, the man she slept with that night, happened to be his best friend. In the texts to her friend the next morning, Emma expressed regret at what had happened, and fear for what it would do to her relationship with her ex.
In court testimony, the ex would claim that Emma used the threat of reporting John as a way to make him stay with her. John, too, said Emma had insinuated she would drop her claims if he promised to “make things right” with his best friend. (Emma says she simply wanted him to take responsibility for what happened.)
John, who is black, vehemently denied the allegations in court. But he said he felt pressured to acquiesce to Emma’s demands, acutely aware how it looked for a white woman to accuse a black man of rape in Kansas. (An attorney for John declined to comment for this story.)
“From a young age that’s what you’re told, that that dynamic doesn’t play out well no matter what the truth is,” John testified at a hearing in the false-report case. “Like I said, I knew what the truth was. I knew it was 100 percent consensual. I was scared to death for the allegation to even be manifested because I didn’t know if the truth would ever come out.”
But that day in September, after taking Emma’s report and seeing the texts on her phone, Lawrence police knew none of that. All they had—90 minutes into what was supposed to be a rape investigation—was Emma’s statement, and the messages in which she expressed regret over what had happened. And that, a detective would later testify, was all they needed to know she was lying.
False rape reports are rare. Research studies and FBI statistics routinely put the percentage of false reports at less than 10 percent, with some as low as 2 percent. Criminal charges for false reports are even more rare. According to press reports, approximately 127 women in the U.S. were charged with false reporting between 2013 and 2018. According to national statistics, more than 600,000 rapes would have been reported to law enforcement in that time.
Among many experts, it is accepted that prosecuting a false rape claim can dissuade other victims from coming forward. The Marshall Project reports that police departments usually only pursue such cases if they’ve dedicated significant resources to investigating the report, or if it has publicly damaged the accused’s reputation. If police do decide to pursue a false reporting charge, the International Association of Chiefs of Police suggests they spend as much time investigating that case as they would have spent investigating an actual assault.
Lisa Avalos, a Louisiana State University professor who researches false reports, says police departments often bring such charges because of a lack of adequate training. Many of these departments, she said, are not versed in “counterintuitive victim behaviors”—such as downplaying a rape to a friend in the aftermath.
“People say and do all kinds of things after they are raped, and a text message simply cannot tell you whether there was consent at the time of the sex,” she said in an email. She added that she had never seen charges like those filed against Emma in a jurisdiction that is “well-versed in rape investigation best practices.”
The Lawrence Police Department did not respond to a detailed list of questions sent by The Daily Beast. The department previously told The Kansas City Star that some of its officers and detectives are specifically trained in responding to sex crimes, working in close concert with the Lawrence Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center. According to the Star, the department’s policy states that rape victims should be interviewed by these specially trained detectives “whenever practicable.”
In Emma’s case, however, all of the investigators testified that they had no special training in working with adult rape victims. In a hearing, one of the detectives described his education as “on-the-job training,” working with officers who were “more experienced” than he was with sexual-assault cases. Another said she had taken a course in investigating sexual assaults against children.
Days after Emma’s report, officers showed up on her doorstep to confirm that she did not want to press charges. On her front porch that day, she says, a female officer told her the incident seemed like a “mistake” and that women in college towns often call the police after sleeping with the wrong person. She says the detective emphasized that pressing charges against John could ruin his future. (The officer later testified she told Emma she was “playing the devil’s advocate.”)
In the months that followed, as they were building a case against Emma for false reporting, the officers testified that they did not interview any of the witnesses she provided that first day outside the hospital. They did not look at her bar tab from the evening in question, as the Kansas City Star reported, or seek out her Uber driver to confirm her level of intoxication.
In an interview with officers, John claimed Emma was talking and acting normally that night. But in text messages reviewed by police, he described her as looking “so fucked up,” while his friends commented that he didn’t even look tipsy. Officers testified that they never asked him to explain that discrepancy.
In other texts from that night collected by police, John told his friends how he wanted to sleep with Emma, just to prove to her ex that he could. But prosecutors made no mention of those texts in hearings, instead focusing on Emma’s determination to win back her ex’s favor.
Now Emma thinks the officers had a pre-formed narrative about her from the day she reported—that she was hoping to get back at her ex-boyfriend and fabricated a rape allegation when that backfired.
What bothers her most, she says, is that “no one thought to ask me anything about what the real motivations behind my actions were.”
“These detectives only looked for pieces of evidence that supported the theory that I was lying,” she said. “They formed this narrative of a woman scorned… and completely ignored anything that was an actual, factual reason for why I did what I did.”
From the day she reported to the day prosecutors dropped the charges, Emma’s case spanned 13 months, and made national headlines. It also spurred local reporters to scrutinize how the police department and district attorney’s office had responded to rape cases in the past.
Earlier this year, another KU student told the Star that when she reported her alleged assault, a police officer told her that these kinds of things happened to girls who “come to college and just experiment.” She said he warned her that she should have made better choices that night. An assistant district attorney, she said, later told her the office could not prosecute because it was her word against the man she was accusing.
Three other Lawrence women reported a frequent KU guest lecturer to police this year, accusing him of sexual assault or abuse. According to the Star, police waited for weeks to contact the suspect, telling the women they couldn’t find his new address. The women reportedly found it themselves, using social media. Police have yet to file charges.
In 2015, a KU rower told Lawrence police she had been raped by a member of the football team. Another student told the school she had been raped by the same man, though she did not report it to police. Again, the DA’s office declined to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence. The two women eventually won a $375,000 settlement from the school.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the district attorney’s office said it believed its filing rate on sexual-violence cases was comparable to or better than that of other, similar jurisdictions. Data provided by the DA’s office shows that in the last 22 months, they prosecuted less than 40 percent of the rape cases referred to them by police. Nationally, more than half of all rape cases referred by police result in a conviction, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
“This office is committed to doing all we can to obtain justice for victims of sexual assault and rape,” the district attorney’s office said. “We wish we could proceed on every case of sexual assault, however, the law only allows us to file a case if we believe we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Asked why they had pursued false-reporting charges against Emma, they said simply: “Based upon the reports submitted to our office, it appeared a crime had occurred.”
In the first three months, when she thought she was participating in a normal rape investigation, Emma says she was able to maintain a relatively normal life: going to work, attending class, and getting extensions on assignments when all the police interviews overwhelmed her. A first-generation college student who helped support her immediate family, Emma was determined to stay in school and get a job after graduation at the law firm where she worked part-time.
But when she was arrested, Emma says, everything came off the rails. She started having panic attacks and nightmares, and developed a prolonged case of mononucleosis. She had to delay her bar exam for a year and put off her graduation until the fall. Her law firm placed her on suspension without pay, jeopardizing her promised job.
Worst of all was the isolation from her friends. Her life felt like it was falling apart, but she couldn’t explain why without also telling people that she had allegedly been raped. Afraid of upsetting her parents, she didn’t tell them what had happened to her until halfway through the criminal case. Her professors were listed as potential witnesses and barred from discussing her charges. Her best friend—the one who had gone with her to make the police report and whom she had talked to daily for the last three years—was barred from speaking to her at all.
By October, more than a year after she filed her report, this had become Emma’s new normal. With financial assistance from the Time’s Up Fund, she had begun working with Cheryl Pilate, a well-known civil-rights attorney with a history of fighting for the wrongly accused. Pilate was one of the first lawyers to get involved in the Midwest Innocence Project, and was recently featured in a Netflix documentary about two men who were exonerated on DNA evidence.
One night in late October, Pilate was sifting through the stacks of papers on her desk, preparing for an evidentiary hearing, when a filing notice popped up in her email. The charges against Emma had been dropped. She was stunned.
“We were, I guess at that particular moment, both elated and surprised,” Pilate recalled. “We called [Emma]—she was literally speechless. She had difficulty comprehending what had happened.”
The DA’s office quickly issued a press release saying it had decided to drop the charges, citing the “cost to our community and the negative impact on survivors of sexual violence.” In the lengthy statement, DA Charles Branson said he still believed in the merits of the case and thought the facts would be borne out at trial. But the possible side effect of silencing survivors, he said, was “unacceptable.”
“Going forward, I will work to clearly communicate with the people of Douglas County how the district attorney’s office approaches sexual-assault cases and the reasons behind the difficult decisions we must often make,” he said. “I will ensure our community is confident we are doing everything allowed by our laws to prosecute sexual assaults and support survivors.”
Asked why it had waited almost a year to drop the charges against Emma, the DA’s office reiterated much of what Branson said in his statement: In recent months, it had spoken with community members, survivor-support agencies, and law enforcement agencies about the potential effects of the case, and decided not to proceed.
The decision to drop the charges may help some survivors feel more comfortable with police in the future. But for Emma, the repercussions are far from over. The law firm where she worked has yet to confirm whether she will get a job. And when she does take the bar exam later this year, she will likely face harsh questioning: The “character and fitness” section of the test places extra scrutiny on those charged with crimes of dishonesty.
“I’m still just processing and dealing with how to regroup,” Emma told The Daily Beast. “I’ve spent over a year now dealing with the fallout of this and I guess… I don’t know. How do you get your life back on track?”
She added, “I guess it just means trying to regroup, and to graduate, and hopefully just trying to pick up the pieces.”