How A Rape Case Went Off The Rails

When University of Iowa graduate student Rebecca Epstein reported to police that she'd been date-raped, she hoped she'd get justice. But because of the circumstances of her case — possibly including her bipolar disorder — that's not what happened.

Epstein (she has asked that her full name be used in this story) told me she was violently anally raped on the night of February 16, by a man she had been on a date with, in his apartment. She stayed at the apartment for about an hour afterward, fearful that he might hurt her further if she left. During this time, she had vaginal intercourse with him, which she describes as nonconsensual but nonviolent. When she felt it was safe to leave, she went to a hospital and had a rape kit done. The next day, she filed a police report. She says detectives were largely respectful in their treatment of the case.

Not long after the sixteenth, Epstein's alleged rapist sent her a letter. She gave me permission to quote from it — it is extremely disturbing reading. Her alleged assailant writes, in part,

I made a terrible mistake Wednesday night: I crossed a line I definitely should not have crossed. I hurt you physically, and as it later became apparent, emotionally. For this, I wish to express my extreme regret. As I've said before, it was never my intention to hurt you, nor is it my intention to hurt any woman whom I have sex with or have feelings for. Politically speaking, I have always stood for women's rights and protections against rape, and I consider it one of the worst crimes a human being can perpetrate on another. I firmly believe that consent should be respected as the holiest of trusts. So how are these sentiments consistent with my actions on Wednesday? One of my exes explained it to me when I once asked her about her comfort zone and whether or not I violated it. She said that I (and quite a few other men who like being bold and playing rough), often take a refusal as a sign that they should "keep trying." She said that I sometimes pushed her, but that when she was firm, I always respected that. I am not in any way passing the blame onto you; I accept that how I behaved was definitely in the wrong. However, I do want to justify myself; I do not want to be placed in that category of men who don't respect women as subjects and are callous to their entreaties and desires.

Of the alleged rape, he writes, "Clearly, you did not enjoy it [...] But you must believe that I believed with all my heart and soul at the time that you were overcoming your reluctance, and trying to get into it." He adds,

I hope intensely that this letter has made you see that I am not malicious or misogynistic, and that I've strived earnestly to respond to your needs and desires. It may be too late for me, but I hope that in the future, when playing rough with a guy, these explanations might guide better behavior. For example, we should have agreed at the very beginning upon a safety word that would mean explicitly: "this no does not mean you can keep trying or that I'm reluctant, it means you better shut it the fuck down." If we had such a word, and you used it, there would be no confusion and I would never, ever have violated it.

The alleged rapist concludes,

Beauty of body and mind like yours is so incredibly rare — I honestly despair at the thought of losing contact with you over this mistake, large and entirely my fault as it was. I still hold out the faint hope that as you heal you might forgive me and see beyond it to the possibilities we might have together. And I believe too, that if we do play again, it will be better than ever.

His suggestion that they "play again" is even more upsetting in light of a Facebook chat they later had. According to Epstein, this took place at the suggestion of Iowa City Detective Jenny Clarahan, who wanted Epstein to "have a dialogue" with her alleged rapist. A portion of the chat reads:

Epstein (E): i think you were so caught up in the moment you weren't listening and you said yesterday that it
was hot that i didn't want you to do it.

Alleged Rapist (AR): now you're putting words into my mouth

E: you asshole. i didn't fight you? you were choking me, then pinning me down, i could barely
breathe.
[...]
i most definitely did say no. several times. i said stop. i said ow. i cried.

AR: Rebecca, I swear, we have two different memories of this
[...]
okay, I'm honest, I'm being totally honest
here's what I'll admit:
I got caught up in the moment, and you did say no at first
but I wasn't choking you [...], I wasn't keeping you from expressing anything
I'm damn sure that if you said anything more, I'd have stopped much much sooner

In the chat, Epstein also described her injuries: "my ribs are all fucked up, possibly broken, my ankle is sprained, i hurt all over, i'm bloody."

About a month after the alleged assault, Epstein learned that Asst. County Attorney Anne Lahey had declined to press charges. At that time, Epstein wrote Lahey a letter stating, in part,

I hope that you can help me to battle this unfair situation, by moving forward and charging my assailant for his terrible crime. I understand that the chances of his being convicted might not be high, but I also believe that I deserve to see him on trial for injuring me in such a heinous manner. I also understand that state funds and time go into trials, and if there is a slim chance of conviction it might seem like a waste, but I do hope that you might consider having him arrested for his crime. The obvious benefits of such an action are that I can seek a restraining order (I realize I can seek a civil one, but I'm told that might not be feasible), I can feel like the justice system is on my side, I can feel safer, and other women might be safer from him, as well.

When she wrote to Lahey, Epstein also referenced the letter and Facebook chat, arguing that her alleged rapist "admits in writing that he did hear me say no but continued to advance anyway, he admits that if I had been more 'firm' in my dissent and refusal he would have stopped, and that if no really meant no, I should have made that clear before the intercourse took place." But her arguments apparently did not sway Lahey. Epstein says they met in early April, and Lahey told her that she would not be pressing charges for several reasons: that Epstein had stayed in the apartment after the alleged rape, and that she had bipolar disorder. Says Epstein,

She said that an Iowa jury would see my behavior as too promiscuous and crazy, and they would judge me and side with the defendant. She also said she didn't think there was a very good chance I would win, so she was trying to protect me by not putting me through it, and I indicated that I would rather go through it and lose than not be able to face him in court.

Lahey was unconvinced. Epstein says she finally asked, "so you're saying that because I have a mental illness, anyone who rapes me basically gets a free pass?" She says Lahey replied, "Yes."

When I reached Lahey, she told me that Epstein's version of events was "not accurate." She said that Epstein's bipolar disorder was "not the reason" she chose not to prosecute the case. However, she would not comment further on what the actual reasons were. Detective Clarahan commented only, "I do not want to speak for Anne, but the fact that Rebecca has a mental illness was not the reason that she would not pursue charges in the case. I am not at liberty to discuss details about the case."

I contacted other people involved in the case, but received no response. And so the Iowa City authorities' version of events remains murky. What I do know, though, seems to paint a disturbing picture of how elusive justice can be. In the next part of this story, I talk to experts about how mental illness and a victim's behavior can influence the outcome of her case, and discuss the final outcome of Epstein's.