A Harris County civil jury on Wednesday sided with Baylor University and two former football players, clearing them each of responsibility in connection with an alleged campus sexual assault.
The jury issued a unanimous verdict after deliberating for less than four hours following a three-week trial in the 234th Civil Court of Judge Lauren Reeder. The trial revolved around a former member of the equestrian team’s allegation that two football players sexually assaulted her on Nov. 12, 2017, while she was incapacitated in her dorm room.
“This was an important decision that recognized Baylor is not the same institution as it was three, four and even five years ago,” read a university statement. “We remain confident in the safety and security of the Baylor campus, in our training and education efforts related to sexual and interpersonal violence, and in our policies and personnel when such unfortunate incidents involving young adults do occur.”
The plaintiff’s attorneys did not provide a comment about the verdict.
“(The plaintiff) is entitled to every ounce of justice you give her,” Worth Carroll, one of her attorneys, said in his closing statement. “She is a remarkable human being, I am proud to know her…She deserves justice.”
The university in recent years came under fire for a sexual assault crisis. In 2016, law firm Pepper Hamilton released the results of an outside investigation that found the school fundamentally failed to address and handle reports of sexual violence.
Baylor ousted top officials and implemented more than a hundred recommendations, including training and education for students, faculty and staff, new policies and procedures, and a newly staffed Title IX office, according to the university.
“They’re embracing their responsibility and moving forward,” said Julie Springer, an attorney representing the university, in her closing statement Wednesday. She added that the school has become the “gold standard” for institutional structures, policies and procedures surrounding sexual violence.
These measures were in place when the young woman, whose identity is being withheld in accordance with Chronicle policy, arrived on campus in the fall of 2017.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argued that those steps were not enough to change a deeply embedded rape culture in which women were victim-blamed while the football team was prioritized.
In the wake of the scandal, fearing the loss of tuition dollars, the school launched a marketing campaign targeting high school girls and their mothers with a message of campus safety, the plaintiff’s attorneys said.
The jury found the school not responsible for the allegation that it committed fraud in connection with such messaging.
The woman accused her former university of allowing an unsafe environment to flourish at her residence hall and failing to warn her about a history of reported sexual assaults at the apartment-style complex, which mostly housed freshman student-athletes. The jury determined that Baylor was not responsible for negligence.
Baylor attorneys and witnesses repeatedly argued that non-stranger sexual assaults are not driven by location — they can happen anywhere. The majority of campus sexual assaults are committed by a known perpetrator, experts said. Besides, the number of sexual assaults reported at the young woman’s residence hall was declining when she moved in, the defense said.
Giving students or parents a dorm-specific breakdown of sexual assault reports, as the plaintiff suggested, could be misleading or raise confidentiality concerns, defense attorneys said.
“Not only was the plaintiff adequately warned about the dangers of sexual assault, every student was adequately warned,” argued Tom Brown, a defense attorney.
Springer, one of Baylor’s attorneys, balked at the plaintiff’s suggestion that freshmen women — who research indicates are at the greatest risk for sexual violence — should not be housed alongside freshmen football players. Students are adults who have the right to privacy and the ability to make their own decisions, she said.
“(It) treads dangerously close to engaging in stereotypes that our society has long since abandoned,” Springer said. “I find that notion as offensive as it is unsupported. There is nothing about those young men, any young male student athlete, that makes them more likely to commit sexual assault than an engineer student or a pre-med student.”
Springer, who accused the plaintiff’s attorney of theatrics, denied the allegation that the woman was victim-blamed when she reported her case to the university. Springer said the student received counseling right away and that the young men were immediately suspended from football activities and ultimately expelled.
The young woman reported her case to Title IX and Baylor University Police Department.
The Title IX investigation found Tre’Von Lewis and John Arthur responsible for engaging in nonconsensual sexual contact with the young woman while she was incapacitated. The young men knew or should have known that she was incapacitated, investigators found.
Lewis, of Houston, told the police investigator that he believed he had non-consensual sex with the woman, according to transcripts of his interview.
“I asked him if he believed he had sex with Doe without consent, he said yes and shook his head yes,” Sgt. Molly Davis wrote in a police report. “He said, ‘I should’ve been smarter than that.’”
Arthur, who testified by deposition last week, said he believes he had consensual sexual contact with the woman.
Davis said the evidence was inconsistent with the young woman’s claim that she was incapacitated, citing the woman’s inconsistent statements as part of her evidence.
Sexual assault experts testified during the trial that survivors of trauma may contradict themselves and experience scattered thoughts or fragmented memories due to the cognitive impacts of trauma.
Police found no probable cause and a McLennan County grand jury declined to indict either man on sexual assault charges.
Title IX and police investigations operate with different standards, different possible punishments and different definitions of sexual assault and consent.
The defense said the woman showed no signs of trauma until videos began circulating and teammates on the equestrian team bullied and shamed her in a phone call. Brown suggested to the jury that they may find the alleged assault was an “unfortunate and perhaps regrettable” sexual encounter, but not a sexual assault.
The young woman has experienced depression, anxiety and panic attacks for which she takes medication and sees a therapist, she testified. She left Baylor University and transferred to two different schools before eventually withdrawing. Most recently, she lost a job at a jewelry store due to a panic attack, she said.
The woman was joyful, fearless and full of hope and dreams before the alleged assault, her lawyers said.
“ I think she’s the bravest person in the room,” her attorney Tom Cunningham said.