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Trial for 2012 Alumnus Lawsuit Begins with Conflict Over Scope

The lawsuit brought by a Boston College alumnus against the University for allegedly interfering in his 2012 disciplinary hearing over sexual assault accusations went to jury trial on Monday.

The alumnus—identified only as “John Doe” in court documents—brought the lawsuit after the University found him responsible for sexually assaulting a fellow student on the annual AHANA Leadership Boat Cruise. Doe was covering the cruise for The Heights when the alleged incident occurred. The University initially suspended him for three semesters, and he is seeking $3 million in damages and an expunged disciplinary record.

The scope of the trial has been limited significantly—in presiding District Court Judge Denise Casper’s instructions to the jury, she told jurors to consider only whether administrators improperly interfered in two key communications with the head of the Administrative Hearing Board, violating the student code of conduct and the implied promise of basic fairness. 

Although the jurors will hear testimonies related to Doe’s claim that another student—identified in court as “JK”—committed the alleged sexual assault and the hearing process itself, they are only to mentioned as background information. Casper instructed the jury to consider only three questions: whether a contract—both explicit and implicit—existed, whether there was a breach of contract, and whether Doe is owed damages.

In the months leading up to the trial, Casper ruled out the testimony of several witnesses who would have testified about whether BC violated Title IX, the role of the University’s general counsel in the disciplinary process, and Doe’s emotional state around the time of the disciplinary process and in the years that followed.

Doe’s lawyers began opening arguments by detailing the sequence of events surrounding the alleged sexual assault. On the night of the boat cruise—Oct. 20, 2012—Doe made his way across the dance floor with JK, an acquaintance of his. At one point, the victim—identified in court as “AB”—turned around and yelled something at Doe, believing him to have just sexually assaulted her. 

Shortly afterward, security guards found Doe and brought him to state police, who put bags over his hands for later forensic tests. Doe spent the night in jail and a family friend bailed him out early the next morning.

Doe’s lawyers stepped away from the main timeline to explain the alternate culprit defense, which Doe had presented as his primary defense during the disciplinary hearings. Wayne noted that JK—who had been drinking that night—turned to Doe just moments after the alleged sexual assault occured to say, “Sorry dude, that was my bad.” Over the next few days, Doe’s lawyers emphasized that JK texted Doe and several of his friends, concerned about the events of that night—which Doe’s Lawyers presented as the effects of a guilty conscience.

Doe’s lawyers then recounted the history of the criminal charges, although evidence and testimony from the criminal investigation do not fall within the scope of the trial. They explained to the jury that forensic evidence and video analysis released in early 2013 suggested Doe did not commit the alleged assault, which led prosecutors to officially drop the charges in May 2014.

From there, Doe’s lawyers presented excerpts of the student code of conduct, which they argued made several promises about disciplinary hearing and fair process, and explained the events that unfolded at BC in the fall of 2012. 

In October, Doe had three meetings with then-Senior Associate Dean of Students Carole Hughes, who his lawyers claimed refused to wait for forensic evidence to return, preferring a two-week timeline. 

The Administrative Hearing Board, led by Catherine-Mary Rivera, then-program manager in the Office of Residential Life, convened on Nov. 8. There were four other people on the Board, including an undergraduate student and three other BC administrators. Doe’s lawyers told the jury that that no evidence of the crime came up on the first day, nor did the Board call JK as a witness. Hughes met with JK the following day to assure him that he would appear only as a witness and not a suspect. 

On Nov. 11, Hughes allegedly instructed Assistant Dean for Conduct Christine Davis to tell Rivera in an email to put JK “at ease,” according to Doe’s lawyers. This email is one of two communications that Doe’s lawyers claim interfere with the alternate culprit defense. 

On Nov. 16, the panel had still not come to any conclusions. In an email to Hughes, Rivera said that they were not leaning toward either “responsible” or “not responsible” and asked Hughes if “no finding” was an option, Doe’s lawyers said. Hughes then told Rivera that then-Dean of Students Paul Chebator said such a result would be “discouraged,” according to Doe’s lawyers—the second key communication.

On Nov. 19, the panel found Doe responsible for indecent assault and battery.

Doe’s lawyers closed their opening argument on Monday by asking the jury to consider the “promises broken” by the University, both with regard to the alternate culprit defense and the alleged interference by the Dean of Students office.

BC’s lawyers used their opening argument to remind the jurors of the narrow scope of the case, emphasizing that their eventual verdict could only address the accusation of improper interference through the two communications in question. The University made a special point of noting that the criminal proceedings, the evidence that ultimately ended them, the hearing process, and its outcome were not to be considered.

On the topic of the “at ease” email, BC’s lawyers said that such instructions fit into the Administrative Hearing Board’s existing plan to question JK as a witness, not a suspect, and that Davis did not pass the message on to Rivera. They also said that Rivera had a different recollection of the phone call with Hughes.

BC’s lawyers closed their argument by imploring the jurors to keep their “eyes on the ball” and to avoid getting confused or distracted by references to the criminal proceeding or the outcome of the hearing. They also brought up damages, saying that, even if the jury is to rule in favor of Doe, there is no evidence of economic harm—Doe successfully returned and graduated from BC and is currently enrolled in law school.

As the jury left the room for a lunch break, BC’s lawyers protested to Casper that Doe’s opening argument included information well beyond the scope of the case. Following the break, Casper reminded the jurors to restrict their deliberations only to the effects of the communication and not to relitigate the outcome of the hearing. 

The first and only witness of day one was Conrad Bletzer Jr. who represented Doe in the disciplinary hearings. Citing scope, Casper blocked several of Doe’s questions for Bletzer pertaining to the process behind the disciplinary hearings and Doe’s alternate culprit defense. Only after Doe’s lawyers rephrased the questions to ask about the content of the hearings did the testimony proceed.

As the first day came to an end, BC’s lawyers suggested that the testimony of Hugh Curran—an attorney at Bletzer’s firm and Doe’s lawyer for the criminal proceedings—be barred, saying that his testimony could not fall within the narrowly-defined scope of the case. Although Warren said that Curran’s testimony would demonstrate that the criminal charges were informally dismissed early on, Casper ultimately granted BC’s motion to exclude the testimony on Tuesday morning.

Bletzer’s testimony, which resumed on Tuesday morning, largely recounted the testimonies of “Betsy”—AB’s friend who was present at the time of the assault—and JK on the second day of the disciplinary hearing. According to Bletzer, Betsy testified in the hearing that she did not see the alleged sexual assault and that three or four people stood between AB and Doe at the time of the sexual assault.

JK testified that he was not next to Doe at the time of the assault and denied that he said, “Sorry dude, my bad,” or that he had assaulted AB, according to Bletzer. JK also claimed that while had been drinking the night of the cruise, he had lied to Doe when he claimed to have no recollection of that night, Bletzer said.

BC’s lawyers objected to Bletzer’s description of the questioning of JK—he had said they were “softball” questions—and at the mention of Phil Tracey—a lawyer referred to JK by BC—who had advised his client during the hearing.

In her final statement, AB told the Administrative Hearing Board that nobody would be safe on campus if the University did not expel Doe, Bletzer said.

Bletzer recalled that the Administrative Hearing Board did not call Doe’s private investigator to testify, nor did the panel grant Doe’s request to wait for additional evidence. BC’s lawyers successfully objected to his attempts to describe the reasoning for both decisions.

Doe’s lawyers finished the line of questioning by asking Bletzer to recall Doe’s final statement at the hearing. Doe emphasized both his sobriety that night, the alternate culprit defense, and repeated his request to wait for more evidence, according to Bletzer.

During the cross-examination, BC’s lawyers questioned Bletzer on his work for Doe, including how much Doe had paid him for his work. Although Doe’s lawyer objected, Casper overruled their motion—Bletzer could not remember, but BC’s lawyers suggested it had been about $30,000. BC’s lawyers went on to poke at Bletzer’s credibility by asking if he had testified to advocate for Doe, which Bletzer denied. 

They also asked him if there was a recording or transcript of the disciplinary hearing and if he had any personal knowledge of interactions between the Dean of Students Office and the Board—Bletzer said no on both counts.

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

September 20, 2019