District Attorney Drops Sexual Assault Charges on Legacy SMU Student

This post by Friends of Justice intern Pierre Berastain originally appeared in Huffington Post

By Pierre Berastain

According to the Dallas Morning News, “The Dallas County district attorney’s office said Monday that a sexual assault charge against former SMU student John David ‘J.D.’ Mahaffey was dropped because prosecutors didn’t have evidence to show it wasn’t consensual.” According to the affidavit, Mahaffey forced another student to give him oral sex and warned him, “You better not tell a soul.” In a recorded phone conversation at SMU Police offices, the student tells Mahaffey, “You know I did not want to do that,” to which Mahaffey responds, “I know you didn’t, but we have to say it was consensual or lawyers, parents and the school will be involved.”

In November a grand jury indicted Mahaffey, but now the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has dropped the charges, indicating that it does not have enough evidence to prosecute him. Mahaffey is a member of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and a legacy whose great-great-grandfather was on SMU’s founding committee.

True, prosecuting sexual assault cases on college campuses can be difficult, but something about this story appears suspicious: A grand jury indicts a student from a very wealthy family with tremendous influence in one of Texas’ most prominent universities, but then, at the sole discretion of the DA’s Office, the charges of sexual assault on another male student are dropped. This happens in Texas, and at SMU, a college that found itself on the Princeton Review’s list of the top 12 least LGBT-friendly colleges in the United States last year. And while I make no assumptions about the sexuality of these SMU students, I wonder what message Dallas County sends to LGBT college students when it refuses to prosecute wealthy, white fraternity men who are accused of sexually assaulting other male students. As a gay man who was assaulted in his college years, I hear the message as an invalidation of my assault. I hear a grand jury that wants to bring me justice but a District Attorney who is too scared to touch the case because he might not win it (or because he does not want to take on an influential family).

What could possibly have gone through the District Attorney’s mind when he decided to drop the charges? Where is the possibility of justice for Mahaffey’s accuser?

But alas, now that Mahaffey’s case won’t go to court, one can only hope that this incident sparks a conversation at SMU about privilege, the general treatment of LGBT students on campus and in Dallas and social and/or community factors that might lead someone to force another student to perform sexual acts. Aside from the question of innocence or guilt, this incident should serve as a way for people to ask questions and begin a community transformation. In writing this piece, I talked to some students at SMU who said, “Everyone knew nothing was going to happen to [Mahaffey].” That sentiment bothered me. Students who experience sexual assault should not have to live on a campus where their peers presuppose that “nothing is going to happen” to possible perpetrators. That comment itself should concern SMU administrators and encourage them to facilitate more conversations about sexual assault.

8 thoughts on “District Attorney Drops Sexual Assault Charges on Legacy SMU Student

  1. A certain Ex President of The United States has influence at SMU. What is his stance on this situation?

  2. As a gay man and alumnus of SMU, I can write absolute confidence that this case would have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law had there not been a compelling reason for it’s discharge by the Dallas DA. You’ve got to bear in mind that while most people from outside Texas will readily lump Dallas in with the rest of the conservative state, Dallas County is predominately liberal. The Dallas County DA is a black, extremely pro-gay Democrat. He runs a tight ship and there is zero reputation for caving to political influence — in fact its just the opposite. There are also plenty of gay people in attendance at SMU, at least a dozen or so openly gay faculty faculty members, and the school’s head of fraternity relations was for years an openly gay man. The school’s reputation as being among the least gay friendly is completely undeserved and based largely on stereotypes, as is the reputation of SMU as being a “rich kid’s school” — roughly half of the students are on some variety of scholarship. Also, SMU is eager to send a message to perpetrators of sexual assault that such behavior is patently unacceptable on their campus. If the charges were dropped, chances are they should have been. Your post would make a lot more sense if this had happened at Baylor, but SMU and Dallas County aren’t exactly the bastion of conservatism that many suppose them to be.

  3. Thank you, Brad. Your post is one of the first to show consideration of the possibility that there may be more to this story than what has been reported in the media.

    “If the charges were dropped, chances are they should have been.” There is other evidence that caused legal representatives from both sides to consider that the accuser may not have been the real victim after all.

    It is NOT OK to falsely accuse ANYONE of a crime, regardless of his or her race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religious beliefs or because of his or her family’s income.

    Given the evidence in this case, it’s possible that Mr. Mahaffey may have been targeted because of some of these factors.

  4. What could possibly have gone through the District Attorney’s mind when he decided to drop the charges?

    As reported in SMU’s Daily Campus in an article written by reporter Julie Fancher, which was updated March 20, 2013:

    “Debbie Denmon, a spokesperson for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, released a statement to The Daily Campus Wednesday morning on why the charges were dropped.
    ‘Information came to light after the indictment in the form of text messages between the alleged victim and defendant J.D. Mahaffey, and it prompted Assistant District Attorney Cresta Garland to dismiss the case.
    Garland did not believe a prosecution was viable, because we didn’t have the evidence to show that what happened between these two young men was not consensual. We are not revealing what the text messages conveyed, because it is sensitive information.”
    Denmon adds that the District Attorney’s Office will not release the text messages due to its adherence with the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, as this evidence is not public record.

  5. Sadly, I’ll say that there are a number of SMU students as well as professors I’ve spoken to who would disagree, Brad. Perhaps times have changed at SMU for the worse since you were there (I certainly doubt that), but some very influential professors indicate that just ten years ago, students couldn’t be out publicly whereas today they can. I think SMU has made great progress, but there remains miles to go.

  6. I don’t know who you’ve spoken with, but I was an active member of SMU’s gay organization GLBSO back in 1995-98 (now apparently called Spectrum) and we had a large contingency of publicly out out students both male and female. (One of those former members still lives in Dallas and recently appeared in a national ad for JC Penney featuring him, his husband and their two adopted kids.) When Matthew Sheppard was killed, there was a large memorial rally on campus attended by hundreds of students. And if memory serves there was even a gay fraternity for a short time in the late 1990s. SMU is a cosmopolitan school with relatively sophisticated students. By contrast, I can think of at least a dozen rural colleges in the Southeast that would be far less gay friendly by comparison.

  7. Pierre, I too was at SMU at a similar time period as described by Brad below. I echo everything he said. Plenty of out and proud gay students, many of whom held leadership position in senate, programming committees, etc. Hell, we’ve had a gay homecoming king, although he was not out then. My point is, it seems you’ve made your decision and perhaps you are on the witchhunt here. All you bring up are “a few people Ive talked to” and “some professors said” and all that jazz. I bring up actual experience with the time period you’re quoting. And quite frankly, you picked a really poor case to defend in this one. You couldn’t know that, but you did. You can choose to believe what you wish, but spare us the nonfactual information about SMU if you want to be taken seriously. Or better yet, admit that what you’ve been told might not actually be the case. But saying students couldnt be out 10 years ago is absolutely ridiculous.

  8. I have know this kid for a long time and his family would disown him and throw him out like a piece of trash if he were to come out of the closet. There have been rumors all over Springfield that his family is moving because of this…JD will attack someone again, it is just a matter of time.

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