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November/ December 2013 The War of Rape

What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?

By Stephanie Mencimer

The jurors weren’t particularly sympathetic to KBR. Oldenburgh says he’d heard the stories about the $500 toilet seats and thought KBR was a “big beast.” And that view didn’t really change during the trial. “We truly believed that there was a hostile work environment,” Oldenburgh said, noting that testimony about KBR’s history of ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace was convincing. The jurors felt that KBR “wasn’t in the clear” on that front, Oldenburgh says. But none of that was relevant if Jones wasn’t actually raped. And Jones’s own case was just so weak and some of her testimony was so incredible that Oldenburgh said the jurors had to suppress laughter while she was testifying. There was no way they could believe she was raped. “It didn’t happen,” he says.

The media, which had played such a major role in publicizing Jones’s story, all but ignored the grand finale. Not a single reporter covered the trial from beginning to end. On the eve of the trial, 20/20 reran its original award-winning 2007 exposé on Jones, but never followed up with a similarly hyped exposé of equal length explaining how the jury could have reached such a different conclusion than ABC’s initial report. Yet the verdict represented an epic media failure, and one that could have been avoided if reporters—myself included—had heeded some of the early warning signs.

In the years before the trial, I wrote a number of stories sympathetic to Jones for my employer, Mother Jones magazine. The plaintiff lawyers who were promoting Jones were good sources, and her story sounded plausible. In addition, KBR’s attempts to defend itself from her charges all seemed sexist and smacked of the old “blame the victim” strategy so common in rape cases.

In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court before the case went to trial, KBR essentially said that Jones was a relentless self-promoter and claimed that she had “sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress.” The petition suggested that much of Jones’s story was fabricated and “that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable.” Rather than take a closer look at what evidence KBR had in its defense, I wrote a blog post about this petition entitled “KBR Calls Jamie Leigh Jones a Liar.”

In June 2012, I attended the Washington, D.C., premier of Hot Coffee, along with Al Franken. During the event, producer Susan Saladoff informed the audience that the Jones trial was under way. Since I was unable to cover the trial in person, the dates had slipped my mind. But as I walked out of the theater and listened to people fuming about the injustice heaped on Jones and ticking off the damning evidence—the shipping container, the lost rape kit, etc.—I decided to look at the trial records to see what sort of smoking guns Jones’s lawyers had come up with.

As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.

At the same time, she certainly wouldn’t have been the first deeply flawed individual to change the law for the better. Some of the most famous Supreme Court cases are named after people who weren’t what we thought they were. John Lawrence, the defendant in the famous Texas case that helped end the persecution of gay men through sodomy prosecutions, never even had sex with the man he was arrested for sleeping with. Ernesto Miranda, whose name will forever be attached to the right to remain silent, spent almost his entire life in and out of prison before dying from a knife wound during a bar fight. The history of the law is littered with cases like these.

Even so, Jones’s wasn’t a story anyone really wanted to hear. If she had fabricated her story, and lied about it for years, even before Congress, the ramifications were extensive. It was bad for rape victims, bad for the beleaguered civil justice system, and even bad for Hot Coffee, which was proving an unexpected and smashing success in defending the legal system from charges that it’s plagued with baseless claims. My editor at Mother Jones cringed when I told him I wanted to write about it, saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

With the records I had, before the trial was over, I wrote a story for Mother Jones predicting that Jones was going to lose. It wasn’t well received, especially by feminists. A writer for the blog Feministe wrote a long post lecturing me about the ins and outs of the legal system and noting, “Women can be raped more than once.”

The story has continued to nag at me, even two years after the trial and a decade after the start of the Iraq War. Now that the trial is over, and the evidence the jurors used to come to their decision is publicly available, there haven’t been many mea culpas from the reporters who helped put Jones in the limelight. Brian Ross, who scored the first on-air interview with Jones back in 2007, and whose exposé prompted Congress to act, referred my requests for an interview to a flack for ABC News, who called to ask what I was writing about and then never answered a single question. Rachel Maddow, who essentially used Jones’s story to accuse thirty Republican senators of being rape apologists, never responded to repeated requests for comment. Only the Houston Chronicle, which failed to cover more than a day or two of the sensational trial in its own backyard, went back a few months later to revisit the verdict with a serious story.

Without extensive media scrutiny of what came out during the trial, Jones’s version of her story has retained significant staying power. Hot Coffee was released on DVD in early November 2011 and is still being featured on HBO occasionally, as well as on college campuses and Netflix. As a result, nearly two years after the verdict, people are still talking about Jones on Twitter and Reddit, where the movie is featured in the “NetflixBestOf” roundups. The story has even seeped into popular culture. In January 2012, the TV crime show Law and Order: SVU aired a “ripped from the headlines”-type episode based loosely on Jones’s allegations.

And Jones’s supporters remain steadfast. After the trial, Representative Poe released a statement reaffirming his support for Jones. When I talked to Susan Saladoff in 2012 about the possibility that Jones wasn’t entirely truthful, she expressed disbelief. She hadn’t examined the trial evidence, but she had spent hours with Jones and found her totally believable. Other people she trusted had trusted Jones. She said, “Clearly Al Franken lent credibility to her story.… I still believe her.”

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

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