A jury in Fairfax County, Va., has awarded an ex-Army colonel $8.4 million in a case involving a false allegation of rape by a Washington state woman.
Col. David “Wil” Riggins was accused of raping Susan Shannon of Everett, Wash., when they attended West Point together in 1986. Shannon made the allegations in a blog post when Riggins was being considered for a promotion to brigadier general. The allegations couldn’t be proven, according to the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, but Riggins was taken off the promotions list. He promptly retired.
Riggins then sued Shannon for defamation, claiming every aspect of her story was “provably false.” The jury agreed.
Then, Riggins sued Shannon for defamation, claiming that every aspect of her rape claim on the West Point campus was “provably false,” and that she wrote two blog posts and a Facebook post “to intentionally derail [his] promotion” to brigadier general. During a six-day trial that ended Aug. 1, a jury in Fairfax County, Va., heard from both Riggins and Shannon at length. And after 2½ hours of deliberation, they sided emphatically with Riggins, awarding him $8.4 million in damages, an extraordinary amount for a defamation case between two private citizens. The jury ordered Shannon to pay $3.4 million in compensatory damages for injury to his reputation and lost wages, and $5 million in punitive damages, “to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again,” according to one of the jurors.
In Virginia, punitive damages are limited to $350,000, and lawyers for both sides said the compensatory damages would likely be reduced to $2 million, leaving a final judgment of $2.3 million against Shannon, a stay-at-home mother of three teenagers. The verdict came just days after a jury in Dallas awarded more than $1 million in damages to a wedding photographer who was harshly criticized by a beauty blogger, causing the photographer’s business to collapse.
Shannon, 52, said she was devastated by the verdict and fearful for her family’s future. “I feel like I’m a financial slave for the rest of my life” to Riggins, Shannon said. “I told the truth in my article and at trial.” She and her lawyer, Benjamin Trichilo, said in an interview that they felt Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Daniel E. Ortiz wrongly prevented them from presenting witnesses and evidence about Riggins’s past and the Army CID investigation findings, and they plan to appeal.
Riggins, 52, said the jury took the right steps toward restoring his life. “This journey we’ve been on the last four years,” Riggins said, “it’s been a nightmare. … The large dollar amount is meaningless. All I was looking for was the opportunity to be vindicated, to set the record straight, to take every action to get my reputation back to where it was before the 15th of July , when she published that false accusation.”
To put it mildly, the woman is a loon:
Shannon wrote in a court filing that “the demons from the rape haunted [me] for years” and that a “decade of suicidal depression led me to Christ.” She writes frequently on her blog, Short Little Rebel, about her Christian faith. She has acknowledged staking out controversial positions on her blog, including that the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was “a planned event” and that “I believe our GOVERNMENT shot those kids and teachers and used Adam Lanza and his family to pull it off.” That post was not presented to the jury in Fairfax, but other inflammatory comments by Shannon were placed in evidence, Trichilo said, while witnesses who were prepared to testify against Riggins’s past were not allowed to testify.
She also lied about not knowing that Riggins was to be promoted. One of her own witnesses contradicted her.
Riggins claimed that he had a short relationship with Shannon in 1983 where consensual sex was involved. He also said the parting was “amicable.” Shannon also said she was raped by Riggins in his car. Riggins did not own a car in 1986.
The most charitable interpretation of Shannon’s testimony is that she convinced herself of the rape. But more probably, she was lying simply to get back at a man who dumped her in 1983.
While this is an extreme case of false rape allegations destroying a man’s career, it highlights something that we often forget or ignore when talking about rape allegations.
There was a time when a woman who accused a man of rape was subjected to the most humiliating, traumatizing, and mostly unnecessary procedures to prove it. It forced most women to refuse to press charges, allowing many serial rapists to continue assaulting women.
Reforms were instituted, but I think any fair-minded person could say that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. The rights of the accused have been subsumed to the notion that an accusation of rape is true unless the man can “prove” otherwise. This is impossible in “he said, she said” cases, which has led to the ruination of many innocent men’s lives.
Is there a happy medium to be found? There is no splitting the baby in two in rape cases. But it seems to me that we must trust our system of justice that presumes innocence until found guilty, and that basic rights for the accused must be enforced.