Why'd he lie? Law student's false racial accusation riles
Why did he do it?
That's a question only one person can answer, and that person– Johnathan Perkins– isn't talking. But it hasn't stopped people from wondering what motivated the close-to-graduating UVA third year law student to make up a story about police harassment and racial profiling.
"I was stunned," says M. Rick Turner, president of the local NAACP, "because why would this person put his career on the line?"
The account Perkins penned detailing the alleged event was published along with a sympathetic news story in the the student-run UVA Law Weekly April 22. At Perkins' request, UVA police launched a full-scale investigation, and high-ranking UVA professors decried the alleged incident in which Perkins claimed he'd been harassed by two officers, thrown up against their cruiser, and searched– simply because he was a black man walking home on city streets.
"Whenever I attempted to turn to answer their questions, they forcibly turned me back around to face the car," wrote Perkins of what he called "a real-life anecdote illustrating the myth of equal protection under the law."
It wasn't true, as Perkins eventually admitted on May 5 after the investigation turned up numerous inconsistencies in his story, according to a UVA release.
But while filing a false report can result in criminal charges against the accuser, that won't be the case this time. Instead, Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman and UVA Police Chief Michael Gibson agree no punishment is necessary. That refusal has some making accusations about political correctness run amok.
"Gibson's reasoning is upside down," writes M. Catherine Evans in an op-ed posted on the American Thinker blog. "Others might think twice about pulling the same con if the law student was held accountable for his actions."
Chief Gibson did not immediately return a reporter's phone call, but Chapman, defending the seemingly gentle approach, says two elements were at play as he and police considered their response. The first, he says, is that Perkins never accused a specific individual.
"We would routinely and invariably go ahead with charges," says Chapman, if the false accusation were made "for the purpose of hurting another person, especially when it's done for the purpose of having someone taken into custody and locked up."
A second element, Chapman says, is that prosecuting Perkins might have not only deterred others from reporting real racial profiling incidents, but also deterred other false accusers from owning up to their lies.
"You do want to encourage people who make a hard decision to say, 'I gotta straighten this out,'" says Chapman, who says the fact that Perkins confessed before the investigation went even further was important.
Indeed, there's a local precedent in which a white man, an Albemarle Sheriff's Deputy, accused an unknown African American man of shooting him in 2003. No charges were filed even after authorities determined that the Deputy, Stephen R. Shiflett, may have shot himself.
If Perkins' allegations against the UVA cops are false, the young man's frustration may be authentic.
In his original letter, Perkins– whose late father, Spencer Perkins, wrote More Than Equals about racial healing, and whose civil rights activist grandfather, John M. Perkins, authored two noted books, Let Justice Roll Down and With Justice for All – describes some of his white classmates as "blithely unaware of the lives that many black people lead" and calls his profiling experience "all too familiar to black Americans."
That's why the NAACP's Turner says that he too contacted Perkins in the days after the accusations, asking the law student to have lunch. Turner was particularly concerned that Perkins' letter suggested he felt he "had no recourse."
"When a person presents a story like that, and then says he has no recourse, I beg to differ," says Turner. "You do have recourse. You get in touch with University police, the University president, and you tell your story."
That's what one mixed-race student did when back in 2003 she was allegedly assaulted by a white man who knocked her down and made threatening racist remarks. While some blogs wondered if she might have concocted the story to win the student government presidency, the election-eve incident created such a firestorm that her election opponent dropped out of the race, then President John Casteen addressed the student body, and the FBI investigated.
In 2005, a month before her graduation, that student– Daisy Lundy (who now goes by her married name, Lovelace)– was given the Distinguished Student Award by the Office of African American Affairs, where she now works as assistant to the Dean. She did not return the Hook's call for comment.
Turner, who was the Dean of African American Affairs at the time of that incident, says Perkins didn't behave like someone who wanted to find justice. Citing "personal problems," Perkins declined Turner's lunch invitation, and within days, Turner says, he'd recanted his tale.
"It's not only damaging to him, to the police department, and the university," says Turner. "It's damaging to students who want to come to the university" and who might change their minds based on the negative publicity.
Before the hoax was revealed, Perkins granted interviews with at least three media outlets including the Cavalier Daily, the Newsplex, and the Daily Progress; but he rebuffed at least one reporter eager to portray his account.
"My main goal was to increase awareness of this type of thing, and I think I've done that," he wrote Hook reporter Lisa Provence in a motive-revealing April 28 email which cited the onslaught of final exams as an interview impediment.
Since the revelation of fakery, Perkins has resisted further inquiries, but he confirms the falsehood in the UVA release: "The events in the article did not occur."
In a post on the Above the Law legal blog, attorney David Lat suggests some of Perkins classmates are feeling betrayed and angry.
"It hurts because the story had seriously affected me, and now every time I hear a story of racially based police misconduct this is going to be the memory that will pop into my head," writes one student who Lat quotes.
One question bouncing around Lat's blog is whether Perkins should face a sanction from UVA's vaunted Honor Code, which proscribes lying along with stealing and cheating– and calls for expulsion for even a single violation.
"Should a UVa law student be immune from violating the honor code simply because he’s so close to graduation?" asks one of Lat's readers. "Of course not; this is a public and egregious violation of the honor code that brings shame on the entire UVA community and should be dealt with swiftly and justly, before Perkins is allowed to graduate, if he should be allowed to graduate at all."
According to well-established Honor Code protocol, any charges would remain confidential before, during, and after an Honor trial. That's the message from Paul G. Mahoney, dean of UVA's School of Law, who reveals what Perkins can expect on graduation day if he has been charged with a Honor offense.
"The subject is typically permitted to participate in the ceremony," Mahoney writes in a statement, "but does not actually receive a degree pending the outcome of the proceeding."
The NAACP's Turner says he thinks the University should try a non-punitive approach.
"I think you ask him to sit down with a psychiatrist to see what's going on in his head," says Turner. "Where was he going with this? People with normal thought patterns don't do this."