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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In Alabama, uncorroborated testimony of a rape victim will support a conviction, but investigators evidently didn't want Megan Rondini to ever take the stand


Megan Rondini
Through 17 years of fighting, and reporting on, corruption in America's "justice system," this is one grim lesson I've learned: The better your case, be it civil or criminal, the more likely you are to get screwed -- especially if your opponent is part of the country's white, conservative power structure. I know that is true in Alabama and Missouri, and I suspect it's true in quite a few other states.

Megan Rondini, the University of Alabama student who committed suicide after her rape allegations against a member of a wealthy Tuscaloosa family met a stone wall of indifference, probably was a victim of having too strong a case. That likely sent the system into overdrive to protect T.J. "Sweet Tea" Bunn, Rondini's alleged attacker

That a strong case could work against you is counterintuitive, to be sure. But when you consider that a strong case could cause problems for someone who is white, wealthy, connected, and powerful . . . well, you begin to comprehend how our broken system works against many individuals -- especially someone like Megan Rondini, who was young, female, from another state (Texas), and not "connected" in Alabama.

We know the system -- specifically Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's investigator Adam Jones -- worked against Rondini by giving her a wildly inaccurate description of Alabama rape law. (See here and here.) But this is not just a case of what members of the "system" DID say to Rondini; it's also of matter of what they did NOT say.

Based on what we know from BuzzFeed News' account of the case, Rondini should have been a prosecutor's dream witness. She was bold, smart, attractive, serious about her studies, and unafraid to pursue a rape case against a man she knew was connected. That, alone, could have put "Sweet Tea" Bunn in a dicey position if the case had gone before a judge and jury.

But that is not the only advantage Megan Rondini might have had if law-enforcement types had taken her seriously and given her accurate and full information about Alabama law. Consider this from a case we have already discussed, Rudolph v. State, 200 So. 3d 1186 (Ala. Crim. App., 2015):

This Court has held that "[t]he uncorroborated testimony of a rape victim can support a rape conviction. Johnson v. State, 365 So.2d 123 (Ala.Crim.App.) cert. denied, 365 So.2d 130 (Ala.1978)." Garrett v. State, 580 So.2d 58, 61 (Ala.Crim.App. 1991). Accordingly, the State's evidence was sufficient to sustain Rudolph's conviction of first-degree rape under § 13A-6-61(a)(3), Ala.Code 1975.

What does that tell us? It says some rape cases can be relatively simple; if you have a credible victim, one with a solid story and the ability to articulate it, that alone can result in a rape conviction -- and uphold it. Let's consider the two cases cited above in Rudolph.

In Johnson v. State, 365 So. 2d 123 (Ala. Crim. App., 1978), the defendant argued on appeal that the victim had several opportunities during the process to make a complaint, but remained silent. The court found that unpersuasive (referring to the victim as the "prosecutrix"):

Although a failure to make a timely complaint after the rape may cast doubt on the veracity of the prosecutrix's testimony, it does not disprove the charge. The truth of the charge remains for the jury. Clark v. State, 28 Ala.App. 448, 186 So. 778. As seen from the facts set out above, the testimony of prosecutrix, alone, if believed by the jury, was sufficient to sustain appellant's conviction. Even the uncorroborated testimony of a prosecutrix will support a rape prosecution. Daniels v. State, Ala.Cr.App., 343 So.2d 566.

In Garrett v. State, 580 So. 2d 58 (Ala. Crim. App, 1991), the defendant argued on appeal that the evidence was insufficient, mainly because the victim did not make a complaint until roughly a year after the rape had occurred. Again, the court was unpersuaded:

The uncorroborated testimony of a rape victim can support a rape conviction. Johnson v. State, 365 So.2d 123 (Ala.Crim. App.) cert. denied, 365 So.2d 130 (Ala. 1978). See also Anthony v. State, 473 So.2d 554 (Ala.Crim.App.1984); Minnifield v. State, 392 So.2d 1288 (Ala.Crim.App. 1981). "Although a failure to make a timely complaint after the rape may cast doubt on the veracity of the prosecutrix's testimony, the truth of the charge remains for the jury." Johnson at 129 (emphasis supplied); Lake v. State, 475 So.2d 896 (Ala. Crim.App.1985) (evidence sufficient to sustain rape conviction even though rape was not reported until the next day and victim did not tell her mother until immediately prior to trial). The victim's testimony provided sufficient evidence of the crime charged. We will not substitute our judgment for that of the jury when there is sufficient evidence of the crime charged.

Our guess is that Megan Rondini would have made a stronger witness than the victims in either Johnson or Garrett. And if that had been the case, and the jury believed her story, T.J. Bunn would have been in a tight spot. It does not mean he would have been convicted; but it does mean he could have been convicted (with the conviction upheld on appeal), based on Megan's testimony alone.

If there had been an uncompromised investigator in the Tuscaloosa Sheriff's Office, here is what he should have told Megan Rondini: "Megan, your case probably will be charged as rape, first degree, which requires "forcible compulsion." That means, in part, that you must have "earnestly resisted." That does not mean you had to "hit or kick" Mr. Bunn. It's a relative term that requires the court to consider the two parties' size, strength, ages, your physical and mental condition, and the degree of force used. That you told Mr. Bunn you did not want to have sex, and you wanted to go home, should weigh in your favor.

"The testimony of any rape victim is critical. In fact, your testimony alone, by law, is enough to support a rape conviction -- and uphold it on appeal. You seem like a credible, articulate, determined young woman. If a jury picks up on those qualities and analyzes them so as to believe your story, that alone could be enough to convict. That doesn't automatically mean Mr. Bunn will be convicted in your case; he might put on a strong defense, and no one can predict the outcome. But nothing beyond your uncorroborated testimony is required to convict him."

It seems no one in authority even came close to making such an accurate statement of the law to Megan Rondini. As a result, she never got her day in court. That probably means investigators knew she had a strong case, and they did not want it to see the light of day.

The reality of our "justice system" is this: If you have a weak case, no one is likely to be worried about it. They will shoot holes in it and wipe your complaint aside. If you have a strong case, and it involves apparent misconduct by one or more white elites, someone almost certainly will be worried about it -- enough to try to circumvent the facts and law to produce an unjust result.

You can rest assured someone was darned worried about Megan Rondini's case, and that apparently set off a chain of obfuscation that wound up costing her life.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for staying on top of this story, LS. You are doing a real public service.

Anonymous said...

Wow . . . just wow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for educating the public about the law on this. The more we know, the worse it gets.

Anonymous said...

I had never thought of it in these terms, but I bet you are right. Sheriff's office knew Megan had a strong case and would make a credible witness, so they didn't want her anywhere near the stand, under oath.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like Alabama law is not as archaic as the BuzzFeed News story made it sound.

legalschnauzer said...

@8:45 --

Good point. What's archaic is the phony version of the law cops fed Megan Rondini. The real law is reasonable and should be effective, depending on the cops and prosecutors who apply it. I think it would be best for the legislature to delete the "earnest resistance" language from the statute because it just causes confusion. It doesn't mean what the cops told Megan, but it would be best to have it out of the law.

Anonymous said...

The Tuscaloosa gang will start taking this seriously when enrollment starts dropping, tuition dollars stop flowing and (God help us!) the football team starts losing games once in a while.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be interesting if UA football players took a stand on this case, the way Missouri players did a year or two ago?

Anonymous said...

Looks like the Web page for ST Bunn Construction has disappeared.

legalschnauzer said...

@9:47 --

Boy, that's interesting. Thanks for sharing. Is somebody hunkering down?