The Limits of Justice

by Nathan Bruschi | 3/3/08 3:50am

Dartmouth students fear their justice system -- and with good reason. Compared to the Federal justice system, our Committee on Standards operates with severely restricted rights. Defendants lack the ability to directly question their accusers and only the letter of the law is considered in rendering a verdict. Under the "preponderance" or "51 percent" proof burden that COS currently employs -- when the charge of the accuser is balanced on the scales of justice by the denial of the accused -- a single grain of sand separates a verdict of guilt from innocence.

In 2006, Student Assembly sought to address these concerns and created a COS taskforce to consider recommendations for improvement. Its report -- endorsed by the Assembly -- called for the standard of evidence used in all COS hearings to be raised to "clear and convincing" and for the right to directly question witnesses. However, some groups on campus, including Sexual Assault Peer Advisors, oppose these reforms in cases of sexual assault and have petitioned to create a special exception ("SAPAs oppose changes to COS," Feb. 22). I want to take their argument further: not only should the College address sexual assault differently, it should separate all criminal trials above prison-level misdemeanors and refer them exclusively to the American justice system.

SAPA claims that forcing sexual assault victims to come face to face with their potential assailants is tantamount to re-victimization and will dissuade them from coming forward. COS, as an extra-legal organization, does not have the ability to conduct search and seizures or subpoena witnesses. With the higher proof burden, this evidence gap will make it harder to convict, leading to an increased number of false "not guilty" verdicts (which SAPAs claim are too prevalent already). COS hearings are confidential, making them more appealing to victims who would otherwise have to go to court and recount their trauma on public record. Public trials are much more expensive, time-consuming and invasive. By preserving the status quo, reform opponents hope to make COS as comfortable and easy for victims as possible and allow them to achieve swift closure to their case and separation from their assailants.

But what is the result? The primary goal of COS is to exact justice by enforcing the rules. Like the regular justice system, it uses a jury to examine facts, determine which statutes were violated and render appropriate consequences. For cases of academic dishonor, COS punishments -- including lost privileges or suspension -- fit the crime. However, rape is an extremely serious crime punishable by death in some jurisdictions. If COS gave its highest punishment -- expulsion -- there still is no reparation for the victim, and it is a sham for COS to claim that justice has been done. This goes the same for all serious crimes; the punishments available to the College are far too lenient to be considered an acceptable stopping point in these crimes' prosecution.

What the College should do is accept the committee's recommendations for all academic honor cases and petty misdemeanors, and then defer judgment for higher crimes to the justice system. For the victim's protection in allegations of violent crimes, COS can broker an arrangement whereby the two parties, if they so desire, never come into contact again and even come to campus during different terms. Unlike the current system, which in practice achieves the same result, this program would not assign guilt, as the College is poorly endowed to do so; instead, an acceptable balance can be achieved until the case works through the courts. Once a verdict is reached, the College should accept it and determine the students' future at the institution accordingly.

To help overcome the problems that victims face in seeking justice for sexual assault, the College should make counselors and legal aid available at little or no cost to the victim. Rape is a highly recidivistic crime, and it would benefit all of campus if laws were upheld and offenders were appropriately punished the first time before they can strike again.

The solution to a system with imperfect fact-finding and imperfect punishments should not be imperfect standards of proof. We owe it to ourselves to find a justice system that can balance the rights of the accused and the accuser; when that is impossible, we should recognize those flaws and seek solutions elsewhere.

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