Four Penn State University alumni who were students there at the time Nate Parker and his then-roommate were charged with the rape of a fellow student have written a compelling letter in defense of the "The Birth of a Nation" actor-writer-director.
"We are both dismayed and disappointed at the gross and blatant misinformation campaign regarding the events that took place during that time period," according to the letter, which can be read in its entirety at the Root and is signed by LaKeisha Wolf, an artist-entrepreneur and past president of the university's black caucus; sociologist Assata Richards, who teaches now at the University of Houston; activist and attorney Lurie Daniel Favors; and Brian Favors, an education consultant and officer for the Nate Parker Foundation.
"We feel compelled to speak truth to this situation as the media has cherry-picked the most salacious elements while ignoring the actual record," they wrote.
In 1999, college roommates and wrestling teammates Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin were charged with raping a Penn State freshman (referred to as Jane Doe) who alleged that she was intoxicated and unconscious at the time. The men have said that the encounter was consensual.
Parker was acquitted in 2001 after testimony was given that he had previously had consensual sex with the woman. Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault, but that verdict was overturned in 2005 when he was granted a mistrial on grounds that his counsel was ineffective. The case was dropped a year later when prosecutors could not gather enough witnesses to testify in a retrial.
The story has taken on a second life with the recent revelation that Jane Doe killed herself in 2012, at age 30. Parker, who hadn't known about the suicide, shared his reaction to the news on social media and in an interview with Variety and Deadline.
"I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name," the 36-year-old wrote in a message posted to his Facebook page.
Since then, Parker's Oscar-hopeful status has been clouded, and the American Film Institute this week canceled a planned Friday screening of "The Birth of a Nation."
In the letter published Thursday, the four alumni alleged that witnesses were intimidated by investigators trying to build a case for the prosecution and discounted allegations that Parker and Celestin had harassed the accuser, as was alleged in a civil case against the university.
Additionally, they said that even though the jury heard as evidence a number of phone calls, the media picked up excerpts primarily from one call between Parker and Jane Doe, in which she insisted she was too intoxicated to consent to sex.
"While we were deeply disappointed with the personal choices in this matter, we stood with and supported Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker then because we believed they were innocent of the crimes of which they were charged," the four alumni wrote. "Our disappointment also stems from our belief that far too many young men participate in patriarchal, misogynistic structures without consideration of the long-term implications.
"We acknowledge that we can be disappointed and desire that they had not been in that room, while recognizing that they should not have been jailed for something that they were not guilty of."
In the end, the former classmates urged a shift in the discussion toward healing.
"It is our hope and prayer that the outpouring of emotion and discussion that this topic has generated can ignite a process toward healing in our families and communities — a process that is so desperately needed if we are going to bring about true social change," they wrote.
"The Birth of a Nation" is set to hit theaters Oct. 7.
Follow Christie D'Zurilla on Twitter @theCDZ.
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