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November/ December 2013 The War of Rape

What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?

By Stephanie Mencimer

And yet there’s a strange paradox about sexual assault. The crime is massively underreported to law enforcement, but at the same time, a fair number of people lie about it. The best official estimates suggest that between 8 percent and 10 percent of all rape claims are false. And unfortunately, sometimes when people lie about rape, they lie spectacularly. Crystal Mangum did so in 2006 when she brought charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Tawana Brawley did so in 1987 when, as a teenager, she nearly sparked race wars in New York by falsely accusing six white men, including police officers and a prosecutor, of raping her.

As told in the media, Jones’s story neatly fit the feminist rape scenario. Brushed off by law enforcement, she sought justice with a civil case, only to be victimized again by defense lawyers using her sexual history to try to discredit her. Her story was both haunting and familiar. Even so, there were some glaring departures from the standard narrative: law enforcement did not, in fact, brush off Jones’s case, a fact that reporters glossed over in the early coverage of her story.

In January 2008, Jones’s case was presented to a federal grand jury in Florida, along with testimony from Jones, Bortz, and nearly two dozen other people who’d been brought in from around the world. One key piece of evidence available for the grand jury was the rape kit. Despite media reports and assertions in Hot Coffee suggesting that the rape kit had been tampered with or discarded by KBR security, the kit had been sitting safely in Quantico in an FBI lab since a few days after Jones’s alleged attack. Its contents and other forensic evidence taken from Jones’s barrack had all been processed by early March 2006.

The physical evidence effectively debunked much of Jones’s story. A urine test done in Iraq had found no sign of Rohypnol, the date-rape drug she alleged had been put in her drink. The swabs taken in Iraq showed no proof that she had been “penetrated anally” or by multiple assailants. The rape kit showed DNA from a single person: Charles Bortz, who had never denied having sex with Jones. Prosecutors didn’t ask for an indictment, and in December 2008, Jones was personally informed that the Justice Department was dropping the case.

Information about the grand jury was publicly available after October 2009 at least, when KBR started to push back against Jones’s media campaign. If reporters mentioned it at all, however, it was generally as a minor afterthought in a story about Jones’s salacious allegations. But the grand jury investigation should have been a tip-off for reporters covering the case, because it signaled that the evidence in Jones’s case wasn’t nearly as strong as she had indicated in public interviews.

Laurie Levenson, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted many sexual assault cases in the criminal division, explains that “[e]ven though the grand jury might have indicted because the standard is so low, prosecutors know that they will eventually need a strong case for trial.” She says it’s likely that the prosecutors didn’t ask for an indictment because they knew if they took the case to trial, they would lose.

Jones’s former coworker Sara Tumbarella (who no longer works for KBR) testified before the grand jury, and is still angry about the case. “If I honestly thought Charles Bortz raped her, I would have been standing by her side, no questions asked, if I truly believed it happened,” she says. But she says Jones’s allegations were outrageous from the first minute she made them. “Everybody knew it never happened. Everybody. It’s women like that that make real-life victims suffer, and that’s why it’s so hard for real women who have been raped to get justice.”

In June 2011, Jones finally got her wish: her civil case went to trial before a jury in a Houston federal court. Almost immediately, however, most of her case was thrown out on basic procedural grounds. The retaliation claim, the sexual harassment charges against Iler, and the shipping-container imprisonment issues were all tossed, because they had not been raised in her initial filing with the EEOC. Then Jones’s own lawyers dropped the gang-rape charge because they couldn’t prove it. In the end, the civil jury was asked to answer one basic question: Did Bortz rape Jones? If that answer was no, according to the judge’s instructions, the jury was not to address the other questions of sexual harassment or whether KBR allowed a hostile workplace.

Jones’s case continued to flounder when the judge refused to allow her lawyers to introduce mug shots of Bortz, who after returning to the U.S. from Iraq had been arrested twice for allegedly assaulting women he’d been dating. In 2006 in Florida, the charges against him were dropped, but in 2009 in South Carolina he pleaded guilty to simple assault charges, and had to pay a fine and attend anger-management classes. But none of that information was allowed into the trial.

While Bortz’s criminal history was banned, much of Jones’s past was fair game, and subjected to a brutal excavation. Her medical records were so damaging to her case that any rational plaintiff’s lawyer would have been begging for a settlement once they came to light. But Jones’s lawyers had attacked KBR relentlessly in the media for four years, and the company wasn’t about to settle before airing its side. In the end, KBR made sure Jones got her day in court.

For years, Jones had been telling the dramatic story of how she woke up in Iraq bruised and bleeding, and how her pectoral muscles had been torn and her breast implants ruptured. But Army doctor Jodi Schultz testified that she never told Jones she’d been raped, much less by multiple attackers, and her notes from that night supported those facts. She had observed some swelling and redness as well as tiny cracks in the skin in Jones’s genital area, but couldn’t speculate as to the cause; the fissures could easily have resulted from consensual sex, she said. She also testified that there was no evidence of anal rape, as Jones had long claimed in the media. Lawyers for Bortz and KBR suggested that the few injuries Jones did have might be the result of treatments Jones had recently had for serious cases of both herpes and genital warts that at one point put her in the hospital for intravenous antibiotics.

Unlike reporters who covered her story in the early days, the jury saw photos of the bruises on Jones the morning after the allegedly brutal attack by a gang of muscle-bound firefighters. Her own lawyers had to concede they were underwhelming. While Jones was on the stand, Todd Kelly showed her the photo of a tiny bruise on her wrist and said, “I understand that you told the media you had severe bruising?”

“Right,” Jones replied.

“When I look at your bruise on your wrist, I don’t see a severe bruise. Can you tell me what you meant by ‘severe bruising’?” Kelly asked.

Stephanie Mencimer is a reporter at Mother Jones and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

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