UC San Diego didn't give male student fair trial in sex case, judge rules

UC San Diego failed to give a fair trial to a male student it found responsible for sexual misconduct last year by refusing to allow him to fully confront and cross-examine his accuser, a judge has ruled.

MORE ON THIS CASE: Ruling could have ripple effects across U.S.

In what is believed to be the first ruling against the University of California in a sexual misconduct case, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joel M. Pressman found there was insufficient evidence to support charges that the student, identified only as John Doe, had pressed a classmate to engage in sexual activity against her will in February 2014. Pressman ordered the university to drop its finding against Doe and all sanctions, including a suspension of one year and a quarter.

"It's a huge relief," said Doe, who asked for anonymity to protect his future academic and career plans.

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In a statement Monday, UC San Diego said officials were "continuing to evaluate the decision, including whether to appeal," and had no further comment.

The case is being watched nationally, as concern has grown that the intensified crackdown on campus sexual assault over the last few years has skewed too far against those accused, violating their due process rights. Last fall, 28 Harvard Law School faculty members published an opinion article condemning their campus procedures on sexual assault cases as lacking "the most basic elements of fairness and due process" and "overwhelmingly stacked against the accused."

Fatima Goss Graves, vice-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington D.C., said schools are continuing to struggle with striking the right balance in assuring a fair procedure for both the accused and accuser. She said, however, that her center continues to hear regularly from "students who tried to report a sexual assault to their school and were treated terribly."

Last month, for instance, three current and former UC Berkeley students sued the university system for allegedly failing to adequately respond to their sexual assault complaints.

In the San Diego case, Doe met the accuser, identified as Jane Roe, at a party in January 2014 and began a sexual relationship later that month. Both sides agreed that at least some of the sex was consensual. But four months later, in June, Roe filed a complaint alleging three instances of sexual misconduct in late January and early February, all of which Doe denied.

Elena Acevedo Dalcourt, UC San Diego's campus complaint resolution officer, found insufficient evidence for two of the charges but determined that the third allegation of digital penetration without consent was valid.   

MORE ON THIS CASE: Ruling could have ripple effects across U.S.

In December, a university hearing panel affirmed those findings and recommended sanctions, including a one-quarter suspension, sexual harassment training and counseling. After Doe sent a letter of response to Dean Sherry L. Mallory, she increased the sanctions to a one-year suspension, which would have required him to reapply for admission to the campus, among other things.

In an opinion issued Friday, Pressman said the university failed to hold a fair trial because the official who headed the misconduct hearing asked Roe only nine of 32 questions submitted by Doe. Officials also improperly allowed Dalcourt's findings to be used in the hearing without allowing Doe to confront the complaint officer, who did not attend. Nor was Doe given access to any statements by 14 witnesses or Roe's own interview statements.

Pressman also found the university "abused its discretion" in increasing sanctions against Doe after he appealed without explaining why.

"While the Court respects the university's determination to address sexual abuse and violence on its campus....the hearing against petitioner was unfair," Pressman wrote.

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12:23 p.m.: This story has been updated with reaction and more details.