So­ci­etal bat­tle on cen­ter stage

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Danika Wor­thing­ton

Af­ter years of buildup, the civil trial of pop star Tay­lor Swift and the for­mer ra­dio host ac­cused of grop­ing her starts Mon­day, be­gin­ning a roller­coaster week as the fed­eral court­house in down­town Den­ver pre­pares for swarms of fans and dozens of lo­cal and na­tional news out­lets.

One-time KYGO host David Mueller, whose on-air name was Jack­son, is su­ing the singer, claim­ing her al­le­ga­tions that he touched her un­der her cloth­ing dur­ing a 2013 meet-and-greet are false and caused him to lose his job. Swift coun­ter­sued, ac­cus­ing Mueller of as­sault and bat­tery.

Al­though this case has the pub­lic’s eye, it’s not the first of its kind nor the one to cap­ture the most at­ten­tion. And as the le­gal bat­tle takes place in civil court, the so­ci­etal bat­tle clashes in the pub­lic eye, af­fect­ing more peo­ple than Swift and Mueller.

“For us to move for­ward as a so­ci­ety and to re­spond to this kind of in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence, it’s im­por­tant for us to have the con­ver­sa­tion and con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion,” said Anne Munch, a long­time at­tor­ney work­ing with sex­ual as­sault vic­tims.

Munch and other le­gal ex­perts agreed that sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault are highly preva­lent and some of the least-re­ported crimes. Most sex­ual as­sault or ha­rass­ment cases go un­no­ticed, Munch said. Of the cases that blow up in the pub­lic sphere, a celebrity is typ­i­cally in­volved on one or both sides.

Pop singer Ke­sha got pub­lic at­ten­tion when she ac­cused her pro­ducer of rape and other abuse, spurring him to sue her

for defama­tion. She coun­ter­sued, and the law­suit is on­go­ing. Her first al­bum since the al­le­ga­tions is set to be re­leased Fri­day.

Con­versely, sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions against Woody Allen, Kobe Bryant, “The Birth of a Na­tion” di­rec­tor Nate Parker and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump have all car­ried news cy­cles.

A look through the ex­hibit list sug­gests the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cli­mate is not lost on Swift’s lawyers. The le­gal team sub­mit­ted 17 ar­ti­cles, univer­sity stud­ies and aca­demic pa­pers fo­cused on sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence. The list in­cluded a Huff­in­g­ton Post ar­ti­cle about Ke­sha’s ex­pe­ri­ence and Wash­ing­ton Post and New York Times ar­ti­cles re­lated to the ac­cu­sa­tions against the pres­i­dent.

Univer­sity of Colorado gen­der stud­ies as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Deepti Misri, whose col­league is one of Swift’s ex­pert wit­nesses, no­tices a com­mon trend. When the ac­cused is a white, pow­er­ful man, pub­lic fa­vor typ­i­cally sways in his di­rec­tion as peo­ple dis­credit the per­son bring­ing the al­le­ga­tions, she said.

But it’s dif­fer­ent when fe­male celebri­ties bring al­le­ga­tions against some­one who does not have fame. The usual wide­spread dis­cred­it­ing hasn’t played out in Swift’s case, she said. In this way, women celebri­ties have a plat­form to bring at­ten­tion the is­sue.

“The hope is that (Swift’s case) sends a mes­sage that this isn’t OK and that you don’t have to stay silent. You hope that’s the case,” le­gal ex­pert Karen Stein­hauser said. “One hopes that peo­ple will say: ‘This can hap­pen to any­one. It can even hap­pen to some­one like Tay­lor Swift. Sex­ual as­sault or in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­tact, all of it doesn’t have just cer­tain vic­tims.’ “

Stein­hauser is the for­mer chief pros­e­cu­tor in the Den­ver district at­tor­ney’s of­fice. She said sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment cases are some of the hard­est to pros­e­cute be­cause it’s of­ten a “he said, she said” situa- tion. On top of that, vic­tims have to re­count the ex­pe­ri­ence in de­tail in front of a jury, judge and the court­room. And in the case of celebri­ties, ev­ery de­tail is broad­cast to the masses.

But some vic­tims may look at this case dif­fer­ently, say­ing Swift has the ca­pa­bil­ity to pur­sue a sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tion while they don’t. Swift has a sup­port­ive pub­lic, fi­nan­cial abil­ity and the op­por­tu­nity to get ther­apy. Many sex­ual as­sault vic­tims, men and women, may worry that the pub­lic will not be on their side, Stein­hauser said.

On av­er­age, 321,500 peo­ple ages 12 and older ex­pe­ri­ence rape and sex­ual as­sault each year, ac­cord­ing to RAINN, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that fights sex­ual vi­o­lence. About 63 per­cent of sex­ual as­saults are not re­ported to po­lice, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Re­source Cen­ter. False re­port­ing oc­curs 2 per­cent to 10 per­cent of the time, ac­cord­ing to the re­source cen­ter.

Vic­tims are of­ten hes­i­tant to come for­ward, Munch said. Munch has nearly three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence as a pros­e­cu­tor and an ad­vo­cate for vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault and stalk­ing.

“It’s ter­ri­bly, ter­ri­bly em­bar­rass­ing for vic­tims,” she said. “There’s a lot of shame that they of­ten feel. Sadly, some­times the cul­ture re­in­forces that.”

Vic­tims may strug­gle com­ing to terms with what hap­pened, she said. They may blame them­selves, say­ing they need to drink less or dress dif­fer­ently as a way to gain con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. Of­ten, re­port­ing means per­sonal or pro­fes­sional losses, such as life be­ing up­rooted if a spouse is the abuser or a de­mo­tion at work if the of­fender is a boss. A vic­tim may be si­lenced by see­ing cases of the pub­lic drag­ging other vic­tims through the mud pub­licly.

Our cul­ture has a ten­dency to blame the vic­tim, pick­ing apart her be­hav­ior and his­tory in­stead of the of­fender’s, Munch said. Peo­ple don’t like to be­lieve these things can hap­pen, es­pe­cially that a friend, col­league or priest can be the of­fender. So when a per­son who is pow­er­ful, suc­cess­ful and ca­pa­ble makes a pub­lic stand against his or her of­fender, the im­pact on other vic­tims can be im­mense, Munch said.

“Be­ing will­ing to hold that line, that re­ally sends a mes­sage,” she said.

As with any case in­volv­ing sex­ual as­sault or ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions, this one has its own char­ac­ter­is­tics.

On June 2, 2013, Swift, who was 23 at the time, held a meet-and-greet be­fore her con­cert at the Pepsi Cen­ter. Ac­cord­ing to Swift’s ac­counts, Mueller went with his girl­friend to pose for a photo. Dur­ing this time, he put his hand un­der Swift’s skirt and groped her.

When the meet-and-greet ended, Swift says she told her team what had hap­pened, point­ing out Mueller in a pic­ture. Se­cu­rity sought out the ra­dio host and re­moved him from the con­cert. Swift’s man­ager, Frank Bell, no­ti­fied KYGO of­fi­cials of the in­ci­dent. On June 4, 2013, the ra­dio sta­tion fired Mueller, who was 51 at the time. Mueller dis­putes Swift’s claims, say­ing he was falsely ac­cused. Mueller said Swift’s team pres­sured the ra­dio sta­tion to fire him.

The in­ci­dent went un­known pub­licly un­til Mueller sued in Septem­ber 2015, prompt­ing Swift to come for­ward with her story in a coun­ter­claim.

The pho­to­graph taken dur­ing the event, which wit­nesses de­scribed as “damn­ing,” ini­tially was sealed at Swift’s re­quest. In Novem­ber, the photo was leaked to en­ter­tain­ment and gos­sip site TMZ.

The case hit head­lines again when U.S. District Judge Wil­liam Martinez sanc­tioned Mueller af­ter he de­stroyed or threw away four elec­tronic de­vices that con­tained record­ings of his in­ter­view with his boss the day be­fore he was fired.

The trial is sched­uled to last nine days, end­ing Aug. 17. But there’s no guarantee it will fit that time­line. Be­cause it is a civil trial, there is no rul­ing on guilt. In­stead, a jury of eight will de­cide which party wins.

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