Last week, we shared the story of Maj. Michael Turpiano, who found himself accused of sexual assault and spent two years under a cloud of suspicion before being acquitted of that charge … only to face conviction on two unrelated battery charges that seemed to materialize out of thin air.
Those charges arose from witness accounts that varied wildly over time, fundamentally changing between initial interviews with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and trial testimony at Turpiano’s court martial some two years later. The accounts given initially carried no hint of criminality. By trial, they’d magically morphed into racy chronicles of alleged abuse.
Incredibly, Turpiano’s jury chose to adopt uncorroborated, unsupported testimony that varied wholly in substance and meaning from prior inconsistent statements given by the witnesses themselves, even after those inconsistencies emerged in open court. Their decision shows how social science has baked bias into the service’s culture, and with it a self-contained jury system populated by members under constant bombardment by a narrative painting men as presumptive would-be rapists waiting for chances to strike.
Instead of a perjury investigation or an inquiry into how investigators managed to persuade witnesses to render such galloping accounts (and why prosecutors chose to believe them), the result was a conviction that seems, on its face, to nullify justice.
Given the differences evident in the contrasting excerpts below, the charges should arguably never have been filed and certainly should not have progressed to trial, where both the government and the defense had an ethical duty to argue that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a charge.
Consider the testimony of R.H., a complainant (thought she didn’t start out that way) who claimed Turpiano battered her during a consensual dirty dancing session at a San Angelo, Texas nightclub.
Here’s what she said to investigators in the spring of 2013:
This is the sole mention made by R.H. in an exhaustive 11-page statement of any direct physical interaction with Turpiano. Her statement went on to say that she “blew it off” as an ordinary occurrence in the kind of dancing in which she and Turpiano were engaged, which included her willingly grinding her backside against his groin. When asked at the Article 32 hearing why she continued dancing with Turpiano after the alleged grazing of her breast, R.H. said she didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.
Here’s what she said at court martial:
This sounds like a description of an entirely different incident.
Note the critical disparities. From an incidental “graze” to a purposeful “cupping.” At trial, the single touch transforms into repeated touching involving her thighs after a supposedly implied revocation of consent. In the initial statement, it was Turpiano who had chosen to walk away from their dance session, but at trial, it’s R.H. who pushes away his hands and leaves.
These aren’t slight differences or trivial details. They are the crux of the entire case. These are wholesale, radical differences that impute criminality where none previously existed. They fundamentally change the character and meaning of the incident by claiming Turpiano continued touching after knowing it was unwelcome. They deprive him of the inferential benefit of having been the one to disengage and walk away. The first statement did not supply evidence for a charge, let alone a conviction. Only through the revised statement of R.H. could the government sustain a charge.
Notably, there’s no other eyewitness testimony corroborating R.H.’s evolved story of what happened to her. Several of her closest associates were there that night and none support her story. She thought so little of the incident when it happened that she didn’t report it to anyone. Only after OSI began investigating the alleged assault of her best friend did the story start to change.
R.H. was impeached on the stand at trial. Here’s the most relevant excerpt:
“That’s what I wrote,” says R.H. This is a distressingly sardonic understatement of the catastrophic significance of her actions. Actually, R.H., it’s not “what you wrote” … it’s what you swore was true on penalty of a perjury charge. It’s what you swore was true during a legal process holding a man’s life, liberty, and future at risk.
R.H. didn’t just “write” her statement. She gave sworn testimony to investigators pursuing a charge of sexual assault against her best friend. We’re now supposed to believe that she omitted critical details pertaining to her own alleged victimization, only to miraculously “remember” them two years later. We’re also supposed to buy that she enthusiastically participated in “grinding” her backside against the groin of her consensual dance partner but was traumatized by his hands touching her less intimately … and that he was magically responsible for divining her covert victimization absent any clues leading him to such a conclusion. His failure to read her mind in the midst of a consensually lewd dance-off seems to be his greatest offense.
It is indeed a dangerous new world if men are expected to affirm the dignity and agency of strong women by meeting them on their own terms … yet men are to be singularly accountable for any misunderstandings about the established boundaries of conduct or the consent tacitly or expressly given in the establishment of those boundaries.
The conviction of Michael Turpiano stands for the proposition that women engaging in dirty dancing aren’t in control of themselves … but are just unwitting daisies flapping in the whimsical breezes created by the empowered men who grind with them. This is not a story of equality, but a cautionary tale of double standards and lopsided expectations, though it’s doubtful any of these important social intonations danced across the synapses of the channelized prosecutors charged with returning to the convening authority with Turpiano’s pelt.
Cases like this will trigger commanders and supervisors, not to mention fathers, uncles, and mentors, to counsel Air Force men to steer well clear of unscripted interactions. This will introduce distance between men and women, impeding communication. This is a recipe for increased misunderstanding, increased warping of co-ed interpersonal relationships, and in short, more problems with misread signals. This is the kind of case that should have been treated as a teachable moment … not the kind of case that should have been taken to trial. Especially given a witness with a story as fickle as it was fashionable.
Either R.H.’s initial testimony was fatally incomplete or her testimony at trial was fatally fabricated. Either way, one version was false … either because R.H. was mistaken or because R.H. flat-out lied. Either way, her testimony is manifestly unreliable. Yet it sent a man to prison and triggered his dishonorable discharge, an irremediable consequence that will follow him for the rest of his life.
R.H. remains an intelligence officer entrusted with handling and safeguarding the nation’s most closely held secrets. It’s left to us to ponder whether someone capable of such a creative rendition of supposedly concrete events possesses the reliability to perform such a job.
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