On March 15, 1996, in the middle of spring break on South Padre Island, Texas, a 21-year-old woman alleged to police that two football players from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute “burst” into her hotel room and took turns sexually assaulting her.
On Aug. 16, 1996, a Texas grand jury indicted each man on the charge of aggravated sexual assault, a felony. A trial was scheduled for late January 1997. It fell apart when the woman declined to testify saying she didn’t know if she could “face the pressure and stress of a trial.”
With no victim to testify, the state determined it had no case. Prosecutors dismissed the charges. The men were free to carry on with their lives. They were innocent. They remain innocent.
There is nothing unusual about this old story – cases collapse often – except that one of the then-RPI football players indicted was named Matt Patricia. He’s 43 now and just happens to be the new head coach of the Detroit Lions.
Reporter Robert Snell of the Detroit News dug up the obscure case and released a story Wednesday night. The Lions say they were unaware of the indictment when they hired Patricia in February after a lengthy run as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots.
It leaves more questions than answers.
Patricia is legally innocent. Yet the allegation is so terrible that to some people, he’s forever stained. Yet if he was wrongly accused, then he’s the victim. Then again, how could the case proceed as far as it did if nothing happened at all?
Mostly though, what does everyone do now?
Well, without further information, not much.
The woman involved did not respond to repeated attempts for comment from the newspaper. She could certainly come forward and provide details, but it’s been more than two decades since the incident in question. As both an ideal and a practical matter, there is a reason statute of limitations exist, proving guilt or innocence can be impossible.
There is apparently no police report, a document lost through the years. Patricia and his co-defendant have always said they were innocent. Few others in South Padre remember the incident or the case. The Detroit News said it contacted “the police chief, lieutenant, grand jury forewoman, prosecutor, assistant prosecutor and defense attorney.” None could recall a thing about it.
Patricia, in a statement, said he was “falsely accused” and lamented that he wasn’t able to defend himself at the time, although he would have almost certainly been pleased that the case was dismissed without the risk of trial. Little did he know he’d be answering for it just after getting a high-profile job.
About all that is known is that at one point there was enough of a case that prosecutors were ready to go to trial on charges that could carry significant prison time (even life), and a grand jury believed that it merited an indictment, a low standard to clear, but still something.
Yet none of it ever got hashed out for the world to see. And it’s now Patricia who feels wronged.
“As someone who was falsely accused of this very serious charge over 22 years ago, and never given the opportunity to defend myself and clear my name, I find it incredibly unfair, disappointing and frustrating that this story would resurface now with the only purpose being to damage my character and reputation,” Patricia said in a statement released after the publication of the newspaper’s story. “I firmly maintain my innocence, as I have always done.”
Is he telling the truth? Is he the victim here? Should this even be discussed all these years later?
America has a system of criminal justice. It is imperfect. It can be incredibly frustrating. It remains the system. It is better than (or close to) all the other systems.
If Patricia is innocent, then he’s innocent. If the allegations against him were never challenged, if his accuser wasn’t confronted, if he wasn’t able to present his own witnesses and evidence, then how is he able to defend himself now? The burden is on the state to prove guilt, not the defendant to prove innocence. Due process matters.
Yet that’s a court of law. In the court of public opinion, Patricia understands he isn’t going to win everyone over, that he’ll be doubted by some, heckled by others. There is no doubt there’s embarrassment that this is out there, even as the Lions aren’t just doubling down on their support of their new coach, they are playing defense attorney for him.
“Matt was 21 at the time and on spring break in Texas,” Lions ownership said in a statement. “The charge was dismissed by the prosecutor at the request of the complaining individual prior to trial. As a result, Coach Patricia never had the opportunity to present his case or clear his name publicly in a court of law. He has denied there was any factual basis for the charge.”
The team went on to note there was never a civil settlement, out-of-court payoff or deal of any sort between Patricia and the woman.
Whether Patricia should have mentioned this incident to the Lions during the interview process is a different question. He didn’t and the team didn’t discover it during a background check – mainly because there was no trial or conviction.
He should have told them, of course, but it’s understandable why he didn’t. Just the allegation may have cost him not just this job, but his entire career. In the interview process, Denver discussed sexual assault allegations against Vance Joseph from earlier in his coaching career and the Broncos still hired him as their head coach. On that, though, Joseph was never charged. Patricia was.
Either way, the Lions, at least publicly, appear comfortable with Patricia’s silence.
Unless other allegations, secret cases or additional accusers pop up, that’s where this should be left. If this proves to be part of a pattern of behavior, then maybe things change.
Otherwise, an old spring break allegation that few knew about and fewer could even recall remains as uncertain as ever, even as it bubbles to the forefront of the NFL.
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