How Justice Was Thwarted in Oklahoma Rape Case of Chicago Hoops Star

09/18/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Rape victims deserve special protections. They should be treated with dignity and respect by law enforcement and medical personnel. They should not be identified by the news media. Their sexual history should be irrelevant.

To do otherwise would further victimize them -- and discourage other victims from reporting crimes by sexual predators.

How should we strike the balance, however, when the hard-fought rights of rape victims conflict with the legal rights of the accused? What safeguards prevent the wrong man from being incarcerated, either because of mistaken identity or, in rare instances, a fabricated accusation?

Few cases illustrate this complicated clash of rights better than the one involving Darrell Williams, an Oklahoma State University basketball player convicted of rape by instrumentation in July. As I have written, "Amy" and "Beth" alleged that Williams groped them by thrusting his hand into their pants at an off-campus party in Stillwater in 2010.

But there was no physical evidence or witnesses who corroborated their allegations, and police used a discredited method to identify Williams. Race also may have played a role in the case since the accusers are white and Williams is black -- an important factor in the numerous wrongful convictions involving mistaken identity. And, the jury that found Williams guilty was comprised of 11 whites and one Asian.

Following up, I reported that Amy had, in fact, confused Williams with a teammate at the party. Although Amy testified that she had asked "Darrell Williams" if he had taken her ID and 10 dollars, she actually had posed this question to Jarred Shaw -- an OSU player strikingly similar in height, weight and skin tone to Williams. Beth, meanwhile, made a similar mistake about another party-goer who was no longer on the team.

So, what are the obligations of Williams' lawyers in challenging the claims of his two accusers? On the one hand, the lawyers are advocates for their client, who has steadfastly professed his innocence -- and passed two lie detector tests. On the other hand, they must take care not to attack Amy and Beth, further traumatizing them while alienating the jury in the process.

Faced with this dilemma, a way to preserve everyone's rights would be to gently question whether the accusers made innocent mistakes. If the lawyers had to blame someone, why not the cops, who erred by showing the accusers a team photo instead of individual shots, of teammates and non-players, in street clothes. That would have helped prevent the confusion that is rampant in cross-racial identification cases.

Indeed, Williams' lawyers are bidding for a new trial based, in part, on mistaken identity. Judge Phillip Corley is expected to decide their motion on Sept. 28 after both sides recently requested another delay. If he denies the bid, Williams will likely be sentenced to serve at least two years in an Oklahoma prison.

But the best evidence for mistaken identity comes from the witnesses themselves. Since Amy mistook Jarred Shaw for Darrell Williams in the incident over her ID and money, why wasn't Shaw called to the stand to tell his story? This is where the plot thickens.

According to court records, Williams' lawyers subpoenaed Shaw on April 24. But Shaw had transferred to Utah State the previous May, the team's spokesperson told me. Other sources said Shaw left town a few days after admitting that Amy had confused him with Williams.

Why did he leave? What did the defense do in the year before Williams' trial to get this key witness to return to Stillwater? Williams' attorney Cheryl Ramsey did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Jarred Shaw could not be reached for comment. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

An even hotter controversy is simmering around Beth, the second accuser. According to the court docket, five subpoenas were issued on Sept. 10 for her "mental health and counseling records." (A sixth subpoena was issued for similar records about Amy.)

Is this fair game? Only if the records contain information that calls into question the accusers' testimony -- and does not pertain to their sex lives. Otherwise, it would be a gratuitous and desperate effort to smear them.

But Judge Corley obviously thought this tack was fair or he would not have allowed it. And, public records about a legal matter pertaining to Beth's family may explain why. The records reveal that Beth suffered from a serious psychiatric problem that required three hospitalizations in 2006-07 alone.

After she was discharged, Beth called the cops to accuse her brother of domestic violence, according to a woman who was living with Beth at the time. "He never touched her. I was there," said Brandy Vanstory, the brother's former girlfriend. "She was making up stuff to get attention." A spokesperson for the local police department said there were no arrests or charges related to the incident. The following year, Beth enrolled at OSU.

One thing is clear: If Williams' lawyers believed Beth's emotional problems raised doubts about her believability, they should not have waited until after the guilty verdict to subpoena the psychiatric records. Like Jarred Shaw's vanishing act, it was another squandered opportunity to help their client -- and find the truth.

As for the Payne County D.A.'s office, they clearly share the blame. Prosecutors should have checked the backgrounds of their complaining witnesses before bringing charges, especially in a case without corroborative evidence. If they did discover the psychiatric records, they had an obligation to promptly inform the defense. The failure to do so is grounds for a new trial.

Hopefully, it is not too late to rectify the continuing blunders by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers. Darrell Williams, who turned 23 in the Payne County Jail last week, deserves better. Amy and Beth deserve better.

In this case, the accusers and the accused have more in common than they may think: The justice system failed them both.