Nate Parker's Campus Rape Acquittal: For The Birth of a Nation Star, Innocent Is Still Guilty

'Believe the victims' mantra is incompatible with the principles of justice and forgiveness.


JC Olivera/Sipa USA/Newscom

In 1999, Nate Parker—then a member of Pennsylvania State University's wrestling team—was accused of rape by a female student. Two years later, he was acquitted. Fifteen years after that, he is a celebrated up-and-coming filmmaker: he co-wrote, directed, and starred in The Birth of a Nation, a forthcoming movie about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion.

Eighteen-year-old Parker was no one of consequence, but 36-year-old Parker is quickly becoming famous, and so the media has seen fit to revisit the accusation. The Daily Beast published a long story about the case, and even interviewed friends and family members of the accuser, who is given the pseudonym "Jennifer." (Her real name is known to reporters, but I will continue to call her Jennifer.)

Jennifer isn't alive to discuss what happened to her. After struggling with mental illness for years, she committed suicide in 2012. Jennifer's tragedy contributes to a striking juxtaposition: in the wake of the assault, the victim lost her mind and her life, while her attacker thrived and became famous.

Of course, Parker maintains that their sexual encounter was consensual, and notes that he was cleared of wrongdoing. He recently told Deadline:

"I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I've done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I've got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I've got four younger sisters."

"Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband… The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college."

The details of the accusation are public knowledge. Parker had been spending time with Jennifer, a freshman, who later admitted that she was interested in him, though she did not want to have sex with him. Parker started kissing her and tried to pull her underwear down: she said no, firmly, and he stopped. She then decided to perform oral sex on him instead.

That encounter isn't in dispute. The real trouble came next evening, when Parker met Jennifer at a bar around midnight. According to The Daily Beast, Parker was late for the date, and Jennifer had already consumed several drinks. They agreed that she was too intoxicated to go back to her dormitory room, so instead, she went home with Parker.

Two other people were present for what came next: Tamerlane Kangas (a friend of Parker), and Jean Celestin (a friend and roommate, and fellow wrestler). Kangas was never charged with a crime, and thus his testimony was key. According to Kangas, both he and Celestin looked into Parker's room and saw Parker having sex with Jennifer. She wasn't moving, he said.

Celestin suggested going into the room. Kangas refused, and Celestin went without him. Celestin then joined in the sexual activity, according to Kangas.

Celestin put the matter differently. He claimed that he was already in the room when Parker and Jennifer started having sex, and that she took Celestin's arm, encouraging him to participate.

Parker and Jennifer had sex again the following morning. Afterward, she was deeply confused about what had happened the night before. She scarcely remembered any of it, and claimed to have been black-out drunk. She could picture another man having sex with her—Celestin—but wasn't sure who he was. And Parker wouldn't tell. Jennifer eventually tricked him into divulging Celestin's name by faking a pregnancy scare. She went to the police and accused them both of raping her.

The case hinged on whether Jennifer had been too intoxicated to consent to sex. Parker said she remained conscious and gave no indication that she didn't understand what was happening. "You were all for it," Parker told Jennifer, during a subsequent telephone conversation.

Parker was acquitted. Celestin was not. He was sentenced to six months in prison. He later sought a retrial, and the case against him was dismissed. The guilty verdict was expunged from his record. It's unknown how much time he actually served, according to The Daily Beast.

Celestin remains friends with Parker, and is listed as a co-writer of The Birth of a Nation.

This creates some difficulties for liberal feminists who, because of intersectionality, really want to support a black filmmaker, particularly when they one has created an important movie about the mistreatment of black people throughout American history.

"Is it possible to root for a talented black filmmaker amid contentious details about his past with women?" wondered Jezebel's Clover Hope. "Certainly, it's left us perplexed."

In a sense, the Parker situation is similar to the recently-resurfaced accusations made by Juanita Broaddrick against Bill Clinton, who she claims raped her 30 years ago. Many left-leaning feminists believe that all sexual assault victims deserve to be believed, no matter what. Hillary Clinton herself has said this. But in the Broaddrick case, this thinking, taken to its logical conclusion, is damaging to Hillary's presidential aspirations: Broaddrick has accused Mrs. Clinton of covering up her husband's misdeeds and trying to keep Broaddrick quiet.

"Believing the victim" is similarly uncomfortable in the Parker situation. Can we admire the art while disliking the artist? Does Parker deserve forgiveness for something that happened so long ago? Should his dirty laundry even be re-aired at all, given that he was acquitted by a jury? Should Jennifer's subsequent suicide undermine Parker's accolades? Should Celestin's involvement in the film be a matter of public concern?

These are not easy questions. In fact, they are even harder to answer than they seem. That's because there's another dimension to this story: key to Parker's defense was his lawyer's contention that racism was motivating the police's handling of the case. Parker and Celestin are black men—Jennifer was a white woman.

The defense also argued that the police essentially gave Kangas no choice but to throw his friends under the bus. An officer threatened to arrest him unless he was more forthcoming about the night in question.

Some lawyers who follow sexual misconduct disputes in higher education suspect that black men are overrepresented among the accused. This shouldn't really come as a surprise. Men of color are disproportionately likely to be thrown in jail for various crimes; the criminal justice system struggles to grant justice to black people; because of systemic racism, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and jury members might be more likely to look at a black man and automatically presume he is guilty.

There's actually something of a tension here among progressives who simultaneously advocate for criminal justice reform in the abstract—particularly when it comes to non-violent drug offenders—while stridently condemning men (often black men) accused of rape to suffer lengthy prison sentences, ruinous financial consequences like expulsion from college, and endless public shaming—even if the accused was ultimately acquitted. Freddie de Boer explodes this tension in a terrific piece:

That leaves us with a question: if an acquittal is insufficient to prove Parker's innocence, what would such proof look like? Is exoneration even possible? And what do we do with people who are accused of crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence when their cases never go to trial? The current progressive impulse seems to be to simply treat them as guilty regardless, and permanently. Yet this strikes me as unambiguously contrary to the spirit and philosophy that contribute to our drive for criminal justice reform. How can we make such reform possible if we condemn huge groups of people to the status of guilty despite never being found guilty of any crime? And if such crimes carry existential and disqualifying moral judgment for life even for those only accused, how can we bring those imprisoned and released back into normal adult life?

The reality of racism makes this even more complex. As it is in all aspects of the criminal justice system, race is implicated in Parker's story. As they are for almost all crimes, black men are arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for sex crimes out of proportion with their numbers in our country. We know, for a fact, that our criminal justice system casts black men with a level of suspicion that it inflicts on no other group. The presumption of guilt in cases of sexual assault cannot fail to be influenced by the same powerful racial inequalities that afflict our system as a whole. And we have reason to believe this is especially true in sex crimes.

De Boer's piece is worth reading in full. He argues persuasively that liberals who are serious about criminal justice reform have to start admitting to themselves that dismantling the prison-industrial complex will by necessity involve forgiving and releasing a lot of people who committed violent crimes of a sexual nature. How will we be able to show compassion for them if we aren't even capable of forgiving someone like Parker—who might have been innocent, and indeed, was declared so by a jury—decades after his alleged crime took place?

I can understand, of course, why Jennifer's family is unable to forgive Parker. Her sister Sharon choked back tears as she told The Daily Beast, "He's probably going to get an Academy Award. It eats me up."

At the same time, it doesn't strike me as fair to blame Parker or Celestin for Jennifer's death. The article notes that Jennifer suffered from bouts of depression even before the alleged rape took place. Before her death, she was confined to a mental institution. She alternately believed she was Satan, or Jesus Christ. She accused her sister of kidnapping her and was clearly suffering from mental illness.

It's perfectly possible that Jennifer's ordeal with Parker and Celestin exacerbated her issues. But it's also possible she would have taken her life 11 years later anyway—that her illness would have progressed regardless.

There isn't anything wrong with journalists looking into these matters again. Perhaps there's even more to be learned about what happened that night in 1999. But there's a very good chance the public will never know more about Jennifer's alleged rape than they do now. Her story had a very sad ending, but it doesn't seem quite right to me that Parker's much happier ending is ill-deserved, or something to lament.

If we must always "believe the victims," then sure, Parker is a rapist who got away with a terrible crime and is now living the good life, even has his victims lies dead and buried. But then there would be no need for due process at all: we would simply imprison everyone who was accused. This would not be a just and civil society, it would be the court of the Queen of Hearts. We recognize that this kind of thing would be immoral and impractical—that everyone deserves a chance to prove their innocence, that some of these people are indeed innocent, and that those who persuade a jury of their innocence are, well, innocent.