The History Of The "False Rape Report" Goes All The Way To The Salem Witch Trials

by E. Ce Miller
20th Century Fox

In 1671, a Puritan lawyer named Sir Matthew Hale became Lord Chief Justice of England — a likely footnote in global history were it not for two things. The first was his presiding over a trial that set legal precedents for the trying and sentencing of women accused of witchcraft in England, and later for the Salem Witch Trials that plagued Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. Hale's second legacy was far more enduring: writing a legal framework for identifying “false” reports of rape that has been widely used in Europe, the United States, and around the world for centuries, both during trials (most recently in a UK court case in 2009) and in the court of public opinion. Hale’s indelible imprint on the way rape is and, more importantly, isn’t prosecuted in the United States is just one of many historical records investigative reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong catalog in their book, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, out from Crown on Feb. 6.

Expanding on the article that won Miller and Armstrong the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting — An Unbelievable Story of Rape, published by ProPublica in December of 2015 — A False Report is an exhaustive journey through the long history of skepticism, shame, and blame most rape victims face in pursuit of justice. It begins in August of 2008, when an 18-year-old foster child named Marie reported being raped in her apartment by a masked intruder. Marie was not believed: not by her foster mothers, not by her friends, not by her case managers, and not by the police. She was ultimately coerced into confessing to false reporting and charged with a gross misdemeanor. It would take years, and several more rapes committed from Washington state to Colorado, for a serial rapist named Marc Patrick O’Leary to be discovered, arrested, and convicted, and for Marie’s name to be cleared.

A False Report: A True Story of Rape In America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, $25.20, Amazon

In the tradition of true crime writers like Truman Capote and Janet Malcolm, Miller and Armstrong illuminate the subsequent assaults and rapes that O’Leary systemically committed after Marie’s, the numerous police officers involved in each case, the two female detectives — Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot — who finally solved the crimes, O’Leary’s own dark narrative, and the long and storied history of the charge of false reporting and the ways that justice systems around the world have failed and continue to fail victims of sex crimes.

A False Report — recently slated to become an eight-part scripted series for Netflix — is a timely and often infuriating read (think: those “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit” posters from last year’s Women’s March.) Speaking to current events like the recent explosion of the #MeToo movement, the sexual assault conversations reverberating from the sound stages of Hollywood to the halls of Congress, and the collective voice of women being named TIME’s 2017 Person of the Year, Miller and Armstrong illuminate the history of "false" reporting — all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials and earlier.

Here are nine things A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America will teach you about the past and present of "false" reporting.


What Sir Matthew Hale Actually Wrote

In his criminal law treatise, The History of the Pleas of the Crown, Hale wrote of rape that while “most detestable," it is an “accusation easy to be made and hard to be proved” and gave a list of criteria to be considered before a woman were to be believed: her reputation and sexual history, the forcefulness of her rejection of the rape, and the amount of time between the criminal act and the accusation — sound familiar?


Hale and the Salem Witch Trials

Comedian Amy Schumer was spot-on when she compared rape victim-shaming to the Salem Witch Trials in a 2016 interview with Charlie Rose. Hale, responsible for the legal framework for false reporting, is also credited with the Salem witch-hunts, trials, and executions. In 1658 he sentenced a convicted witch to hanging and executed two more in 1662 — setting legal precedents that informed the Salem witch trials and the persecution of women whom, Hale once wrote, could not “govern the greatness of [their] spirit[s].”


What Thomas Jefferson Had to Say About False Reporting

In a 1786 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote critically against harsh punishments for rape, asserting his belief that women make false accusations of rape in revenge against unfaithful or disinterested lovers.


The Legacy of the Wigmore Doctrine

Miller and Armstrong also document the work of John Henry Wigmore, citing him as the “twentieth century’s leading expert in the field of evidence”, co-founder of the Harvard Law Review, and 28-year dean of Northwestern University’s law school, whose ideas about women’s credibility and inherent mental instability, as well as the relevance of a woman’s social and sexual history in rape cases, still reverberate through courtrooms today.


The Surprising Role of the Playboy Foundation

You might be surprised to learn (or, maybe you won’t be) that in the mid-1970s the Playboy Foundation gave $10,000 and the use of the Playboy offices to produce and distribute the first-ever rape kits to U.S hospitals, ending a tradition of incomplete, incompetent, and haphazard evidence collection following the hospitalization of a rape victim.


Female Police Officers Matter

Female police officers also make a difference. Miller and Armstrong cite a 2006 study of the largest U.S. police departments showing that every 1 percent increase in female officers on a police force resulted in a 1 percent increase in the number of rapes reported in that jurisdiction.


The Stats We Keep Demonstrate What We Value

There’s currently no documented statistic on how many women have been accused of and/or charged with making a false claim of rape (though there probably should be.) However, since 1990 there have been four widely circulated media reports of rape victims who have actually been criminally charged with false reporting, including Marie — each woman facing both fines and the threat of jail time. Far more frequently, Miller and Armstrong report, police departments will simply dismiss rape allegations as false or baseless, often without even first interviewing the victim.


The Role of Doubt is Critical

In A False Report, Miller and Armstrong detail a phenomenon called “downstreaming” — wherein each person involved in a rape investigation base their decisions and actions on their assumptions about how others will perceive the case, beginning with the victim. A victim is often concerned with how details like her attire or what she was drinking will impact her case (because, as we know, history has taught her this matters.) Police are skeptical about a prosecutor’s approach to a case with little or no physical evidence. Prosecutors are burdened with a jury’s perception of the victim and her testimony. In no other crime in our society is the burden of proof of innocence placed on the victim — and everyone from rape victims to agents of the justice system are deeply aware of this.


What We Can Learn From the Salem Witch Trials About Rape

As #MeToo continues to gain steam, the idea of “witch hunts” has been increasingly invoked by victims, victims’ advocates, skeptics, the accused, and even the President of the United States — telling in that sort of “you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t” way that sexual assault victims are all-too familiar with. Many critics of the #MeToo movement have gone as far as to suggest that accusations have reached the fever pitch of the Salem witch hunts — an assertion that is both historically inaccurate and misunderstands the nature of a witch hunt in the first place. The Salem Witch Trials — and the European witch trials that preceded Salem — were inherently and almost exclusively about the persecution of a society’s least powerful members (slaves, girls and women, prostitutes, the homeless) and the removal or elimination of those who disrupted the status quo. Figures like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, and others can hardly be considered powerless nor anything but beneficiaries of a status quo dependent on denying women positions of power.

Just as in the Salem Witch Trials, victims of sexual assault are victimized twice: first by a society that benefits from the powerlessness of women, and second by a criminal justice system that condemns them. Victims who don’t speak out, suffer their crimes in silence; those who do are re-victimized by varying degrees of false reporting accusations. Either way, women, literally or metaphorically, still hang. Miller and Armstrong's reporting takes one more step towards ending that.