Opinion: School Can't Be Bigger Than Pursuit of Justice

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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)


The A.J. Johnson/Michael Williams rape trial is over, happily for them.

But questions linger about the review David Rausch conducted of the Knoxville Police Department's "longstanding" practice of courtesy calls to the University of Tennessee when student-athletes got in trouble.

Rausch - then Knoxville police chief and now TBI director - discontinued the practice but determined that "no investigations were compromised" by the calls. That was contradicted under oath by investigator Tim Riddle, who told jurors that Johnson was warned by his coach, who was alerted by KPD, so the players had time to prepare their stories and clean up the scene before investigators could question them.

Riddle's grim conclusion: "It let me know UT is bigger than this case."

Not just this case, though.

Rausch's review need only have extended back to 2003 to find another instance of UT intruding into a rape investigation.

That case began when a 17-year-old girl who had just finished high school led a mentally disabled 16-year-old friend into an athlete's dorm room at Gibbs Hall. Unprotected sex with the younger girl followed. When her mother found out, she called police.

Before detectives could interview witnesses, though, Phil Fulmer had arranged an interview with the 17-year-old and met her that very day.

Fulmer was accompanied by an attorney and two football players, including the 17-year-old's boyfriend.

The coach took written statements from the girl and from the player, who had been in and out of the room where the sex happened.

Afterward, a police investigator repeatedly raised concerns about Fulmer quizzing witnesses before police had a chance. But Randy Nichols, district attorney general at the time, determined that Fulmer's involvement had no effect on the witnesses' statements. Regardless, the DA decided not to prosecute.

"Considering all the evidence, it is clear there is not sufficient evidence to prove the allegations in the case beyond a reasonable doubt, as is required by law," Nichols said.

Other cases were jeopardized by meddling, as well.

For example, the "hostile sexual environment" lawsuit that UT settled in 2016 for $2.48 million mentioned a Sept. 20, 2015, rape accusation against a football player. The case file revealed that Officer Sam Brown, liaison to the UT football team, made inquiries about the involvement of an athlete even as officers worked to identify a suspect. There were no charges.

Mayor Madeline Rogero has said she will review the situation this week with the new police chief, Eve Thomas. That's good.

Rausch said the purpose of the calls was to allow UT "appropriate time to prepare responses" to incidents that could draw public attention. But no institution should be bigger than the orderly pursuit of justice.

Jack McElroy is executive editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. He can be reached at [email protected]

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August 6, 2018


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