Peeps, I feel so sick inside when events such as the following occur in this country. Progress is progress, but too many people–and specifically, minority racial group people, fall through the cracks (or get stomped through them, it seems). This is a long read, so take the weekend if you need to. However, I implore that you read the whole case. Share it with a friend. Post it on your blog. Don’t be silent if this moves you. If it doesn’t move you, maybe you’re just used to it; too far gone over the bitter fence. If there’s another reason, please share. I have pasted excerpts from the article to give a more concise version of the following case:
Eric Frimpong was an immigrant from Ghana who came to the US recruited to play soccor at his college. He was accused, convicted, and sentenced for rape based on virtually no evidence but the victim’s testimony, who herself was heavily intoxicated and admitted to not having much memory of the night, AND with evidence of her boyfriend’s semen on her panties the night of the rape. I have pasted excerpts from the article to give you a somewhat concise understanding of the following case:
Back in Ghana, in western Africa, he and his three younger siblings were raised by their mother, Mary, in the poor farming community of Abesin, but her job as a typist with the government forestry department allowed the family to have plumbing and electricity, unlike many of their neighbors. Eric was an engineering major and a midfielder for Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, when he caught the eye of UCSB assistant Leo Chappel, who attended a 2005 match to scout the son of a Ghanian pro but ended up offering a scholarship to Frimpong instead.
Everyone around Frimpong was buoyed by his success: his mother, friends and classmates, prominent locals who had helped him out along the way with invites to dinner, rides to the store and, when he struggled with homesickness during his junior year, a fund-raiser that yielded $3,000 for a ticket to Ghana. “We all tried to pitch in, because Eric’s so darn likable,” says Tim Foley, a booster who made Frimpong a regular guest at his family’s home. “He was an American success story.”
The Monahans were especially proud. Frimpong had met his “American parents” on move-in day in 2005, and they promptly invited him to spend Thanksgiving in San Diego. They gave him his first cell phone and laptop and took him on family vacations. They sat in their kitchen for hours listening to his stories about Ghana. They were also impressed by his knowledge of the Bible, and his quiet spirituality helped bolster their own faith. “He was going to graduate, play professionally, make more money here than he ever could in Ghana and bring it back to support his family,” Loni says. “Eric really had it all.”
Frimpong’s journey from soccer hero to convicted felon began a little more than halfway through his senior year. (The account that follows is based on police reports, interview transcripts, court proceedings and comments from trial observers.) The night of Feb. 16 began for Frimpong in the same place where he started most Friday nights, on the couch in his house at 6547 Del Playa Drive, watching a movie with housemates. His girlfriend, Yesenia Prieto, was working late, but Eric had reason to celebrate, fresh off an impressive 10-day tryout for the Wizards, so he showered and went to meet friends at a party at 6681 Del Playa Drive. It was outside that home, at about 11:30 p.m., that Frimpong met Jane Doe, a UCSB freshman. They struck up a conversation, then walked back to his house to play beer pong. They arrived just before midnight, and Eric introduced Jane to his roommates before taking her to the patio, where the two of them played beer pong for a few minutes until, according to Frimpong, Doe said she wanted to smoke, so they headed for the park next door. At the park, he says, Doe approached another male, who appeared to have followed them. When she walked back to Frimpong, she started kissing him, but he wasn’t interested because she smelled of cigarettes. Doe became aggressive, he says, and stuck her hand down his pants. He pushed her away, then headed to the home of his friend, Krystal Giang, who’d been expecting him. By 4 a.m., he was in bed at Prieto’s apartment.
About an hour and a half earlier, Jane Doe, accompanied by her sister and two friends, checked into Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital emergency clinic, claiming she had been raped. She was transferred to the Sexual Assault Response center downtown, where a nurse discovered a laceration to Doe’s external genitalia and bruises on her body, findings consistent with sexual assault.
“Yesterday was a really good day,” Doe told sheriff’s detectives Daniel Kies and Michael Scherbarth when they arrived at her dorm room the next morning, according to a police transcript. The reason for cheer: The 18-year-old Doe had just regained her driver’s license following a juvenile DUI conviction. At around 9 p.m. on Feb. 16, she went to a party. After stopping at a second party, Doe left the group and headed for a fraternity bash on Del Playa. “That’s where I saw the guy,” she told police.
From there, Doe’s story is mostly consistent with Frimpong’s, up to and including their game of beer pong. “He was really nice,” she said. But their accounts differ sharply after that. According to Doe, the next thing she remembers is being on the beach, where the nice guy turned violent, knocking her to the ground, striking her in the face, holding her throat and raping her before fleeing. Having lost her purse, Doe walked to Del Playa, where she stopped a passerby, student Justin Hannah. Using his cell, she phoned a friend, her father and then her friends, who picked her up around 1:30 a.m. Doe, who admitted to drinking heavily throughout the evening, couldn’t remember anything between stepping into their car and going to the hospital — a period of one hour — but her friends would fill in the blanks: At first Doe didn’t want to go to the hospital because she was worried about getting in trouble for drinking. But back at the dorm, her friends kept urging, and she relented. Sitting with the detectives that morning, she described her attacker as a black male who spoke with an “island accent” and had “big lips” and short hair. His name? “Eric, I think.”
Sometime around noon on Feb. 17, Kies and Scherbarth spotted Frimpong hanging out with friends at the park on Del Playa. When Kies asked if he would accompany them to the station to talk about “what happened last night,” Frimpong agreed to go, despite being unsure what the detective meant. Once at the station, Kies reminded Frimpong that he had come voluntarily and asked him to describe what he’d been doing the previous night. According to the police transcript, Frimpong told Kies about watching a movie at home, then going to a party and eventually meeting Doe, whom he described as one of the “random soccer fans,” and playing beer pong with her before heading to Giang’s house and later to Prieto’s. Kies then asked for Frimpong’s consent to collect the clothes he’d worn the night before. “Yeah,” Frimpong responded, “but I still don’t know what’s going on.” Kies explained that the girl said that they’d “had sex” on the beach. “Wow,” Frimpong responded. Kies then informed Frimpong that he was being detained and read him his rights. Minutes later, he explained the rape accusation. “I didn’t have sex with her,” Frimpong insisted. Charged with felony rape, he phoned Paul Monahan, who spread the word. Vom Steeg couldn’t believe it: “I’m thinking, Frimpong? Rape? No way.” (The coach later asked Frimpong directly. “I said, ‘Eric, is there any chance you had sex but you thought maybe it was consensual?’ He said, ‘Tim, I never pulled my pants down.’ I said, ‘If you did this, DNA will prove it.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m not stupid.’ “)
When the test results came back in March, Frimpong’s DNA hadn’t been found on Jane Doe’s clothing or body, but Doe’s DNA had been found on Frimpong: in two nucleated epithelial cells, found on his scrotum and penis, and in an unspecified trace under his fingernail. (Epithelial cells are found inside the body and in body fluids like mucus, saliva and sweat. These tested negative as vaginal cells, but such tests can be inconclusive. When the case went to trial that November, the defense argued that the findings were consistent with Frimpong’s claim that Doe had grabbed his genitals.) Also, semen found on Doe’s underwear didn’t match Frimpong’s — but it was a match for that of Benjamin Randall, Doe’s sexual partner throughout her freshman year.
Despite having DNA evidence matched to him, Randall was never a suspect. Neither was the man who retrieved Doe’s purse, which she said she’d lost either on the beach or at Frimpong’s home. It was delivered to the sheriff’s department the next day, minus $30, by someone described in the police report as a “can recycler.” But because of a “language barrier,” he wasn’t questioned. Frimpong was the only suspect, even though there was no apparent sign of sexual activity — no blood, semen, vaginal secretions — or any scratches or other telltale marks of rape on his body or clothes. The absence of abrasions was odd. Doe told authorities she was wearing a “thicker ring” on her right ring finger and that she hit her attacker so hard, “all my knuckles were screwed up.” There was also very little sand found on his clothes.
Throughout the investigation and during the trial, Doe admitted to gaps in her memory. In her interview with detectives, she claimed she had consumed “a couple shots of vodka” before leaving her dorm. In an interview that April with assistant district attorney Mary Barron, the lead prosecutor, Doe said she’d consumed more throughout the evening. “I know I had beer,” she said. “And I know I had rum.” She also acknowledged that her memory after beer pong was hazy. “That’s when it starts to, like, cut out,” she told Barron. According to the transcript, Doe had little memory of going to the beach, and her recollection of the rape itself was scattered. Asked whether she recalled going outside to smoke, Doe said she “probably” smoked but didn’t remember when. “I don’t even know, since there’s that chunk missing.”
So what happened on the beach? Doe said Frimpong may have tried to kiss her, but when pressed by Barron she admitted, “I have no clue. I’m just assuming…” She also said, “I remember him biting me on my face,” even though she had told the emergency room doctor she thought she’d been hit, and when questioned by detectives, she said she didn’t know about being bitten. Doe continued, “I saw him, like, feel around — take off his belt — or something on his pants — I don’t know.” She said she remembered being penetrated, and “it felt like a penis.” Barron asked if the attacker was the same person she’d played beer pong with. Doe said that while she couldn’t recall going to the beach, she remembered the attacker’s accent, his eyes (“They were white”) and his lips (“They’re big”). She was also fairly confident that the rape lasted “15 minutes at the most… but then, since there’s that huge chunk of time that I don’t remember, it could be anything.”
Many of Frimpong’s supporters believe that race is at the heart of the case. Santa Barbara County has nearly 425,000 residents, but only 2% are black. “I love this town,” says Foley, a resident for 30 years, “but there’s no question there’s racism here.” Thanks to Frimpong’s celebrity status, he wasn’t flying under the radar. “I’m 100% convinced that they were going to nail this guy before he walked into the station,” Foley says. (At the trial, Burns testified that in a Feb. 22 phone call from Kies, the detective asked her to expedite her usual process, reminding her that this was a “high-profile case.”)
The jury began deliberating on Friday, Dec. 14; the next Monday, just after 3:30 p.m., came the guilty verdict. On Jan. 31, 2008, with Frimpong in jail awaiting sentencing, the defense filed a motion for a new trial, citing several factors, including a development with the jury: In a written declaration to the court, juror Ann Diebold stated, “I regret the decision I made in finding Mr. Frimpong guilty.” Among her many points was the court’s refusal to provide the jury with evidence they had requested for review, including Doe’s testimony and Frimpong’s interview with Kies — the latter because some jurors stated that they wanted “the opportunity to hear Mr. Frimpong’s side of the story.” (They were read only Doe’s direct testimony, without cross-examination, because Judge Hill said “it would take some time to gather the additional information,” Diebold wrote.) Diebold also claimed that the jurors rushed through deliberations so they could conclude the case by the Christmas holiday. “I felt pressure from the judge and other jurors to reach a verdict by Dec. 18,” she wrote.
Sanger’s motion was a last-second heave, but it allowed him to put his own forensic dentist on the stand. Defense expert Charles Bowers fell ill during the trial and was unable to testify, but at the hearing on Feb. 28, he delivered his opinion: Frimpong’s teeth could not have made the bite, but Randall’s (the victim’s boyfriend) teeth could have. As Bowers spoke, there was a buzz in the gallery. But Judge Hill was unmoved. He began the hearing by saying that in his 27-year career, “I’ve not seen a rape case with so much incriminating, credible and powerful evidence,” and ended it by dismissing the motion. Three days later, he sentenced Frimpong to six years.
“It’s a terrible thing that happened to me,” Frimpong says. “Being in here, I keep asking myself why God put me in that situation. And then it struck me: Maybe I can reach more people, help more people, if they hear my story.” His supporters say it’s working. “All you have to do is look at Frimmer’s camp — he hasn’t lost anyone,” Vom Steeg says. “In fact, since the trial, he’s actually gaining supporters.” In Ghana, Frimpong’s plight is well-documented by the media. In Santa Barbara, people continue to proclaim his innocence, even when it’s not easy to do so. After writing several opinion pieces in the local papers, Kim Seefeld was inexplicably subpoenaed to appear at the hearings on the motion for a new trial. (She was never called to testify.) “I got harassed by the DA, subpoenaed and threatened, all because I stuck my neck out for someone I believe is innocent,” says Seefeld, who plans to continue her writing. “That’s what happens to a citizen who dares to question our justice system in Santa Barbara.”
And then there are the letters from all over the world, many containing donations. “These are people who don’t even know Eric, have never spoken directly to him,” Loni Monahan says with awe. “Eric was born to be a pro soccer player, but he’s realized he has more impact in the direction he’s going. There’s a groundswell going on.” The key addition to Team Frimpong is Ronald Turner, a Sacramento-based, court-appointed appellate attorney who has filed the opening brief in an appeal with the Second Appellate District of California. The process gives Frimpong hope.