published Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Gerber: Gilmer case demands fairness

The sheriff said the attack caused tearing and severe trauma. He said the teenager’s injuries were some of the worst he has ever seen.

An attorney for a young man charged with sexually battering the 18-year-old said any acts were consensual.

That’s the crux of a story about a sexual attack that occurred in Georgia after the Calhoun High School prom on the night of May 10. With his statement that the acts were consensual, the attorney gave a hint of what will play out in court when his client and two others are tried on charges of aggravated sexual battery and underage possession of alcohol.

If convicted, defendants Fields Chapman, Andrew Haynes and Avery Johnson, all 18, could each serve up to 25 years in prison. And Sheriff Stacy Nicholson of Gilmer County, where the attack took place, said they may also face the more severe charge of rape, pending the results of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation analysis of forensic evidence.

Investigators said the students at the post-prom party brought gallons of liquor and cases of beer, and some drank for five hours. None of them were over 20 years old. Four men ended up in a bedroom with the young woman. They allegedly inserted a foreign object into her against her will, “causing tearing and severe trauma.”

The sheriff said other students were aware of what was happening but did nothing to stop it.

When word of the investigation got out, newspapers and TV stations across the region — from the Times Free Press here in Chattanooga to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — covered it. An attack on a young woman is certainly a newsworthy story, and one our readers want to information on. But the coverage, coupled with intense talk and speculation on social media, makes this crime more high profile than it might have been before the Internet era.

When covering a story like this — one that’s shocking and emotional and has the potential to divide a town — it would be easy to cling to clichés or take sides. Critics said media coverage of the rape of a 16-year-old in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012 did just that. Many journalists said coverage of the case was too sympathetic toward the defendants, members of the high school football team who were ultimately convicted.

Much of the coverage, especially on CNN and other television outlets, focused on what the defendants lost, on how their lives had been destroyed, on how their promising athletic careers had ended, and on how they’d been good students. There was little mention of the victim’s side or the impact of the crime on her, critics said, and they called the coverage disgraceful. One referred to it as “an act of serious journalistic negligence.”

The difficult part of covering a rape is that that most reputable news organization never release the names of victims of sexual crimes without their expressed permissions. And, because there still is a stigma associated with rape, many victims choose to never speak publicly. So a victim of a sex crime is often relegated to a nameless, faceless accuser. Meanwhile, defendants — and their lawyers — often are able to build sympathy with the public before the trial.

In the Gilmer County case, people on social media have taken up for the victim, using the hashtag #standFORher in posts. “My hometown is coming together for this student, her life will never be the same #standFORher,” one person tweeted.

The Times Free Press reporters covering this story, Kate Harrison and Tyler Jett, have heard rumors and all kinds of dramatic accounts of what happened that night. They’ve sorted through it all and kept their stories to facts they can prove, what investigators have publicly said and statements in police documents.

As the case continues and the story progresses, we’ll make every effort to bring our readers balanced coverage that does not glorify nor vilify either the alleged victim or her alleged assailants. The court will decide if they’re guilty, not the Times Free Press.

No one really knows what happened that night except the people at the party, and many of them were drunk. But in some way, this party gone wrong will leave a stain on everyone there as well as Calhoun, Ga., a town of 15,000.

A few days ago, I heard someone giving directions to the outlet mall off Interstate 75 in Calhoun. The person getting directions stopped and asked, “Calhoun? Isn’t that where that rape happened?”

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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