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GUILTY IN SCHOOL, BUT NOT IN COURT

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Much different than the outcome of the Student Conduct System procedure, expelled University at Albany student Peter Benjamin, was found not guilty of sexual assault by a jury in Albany County Court on Oct. 21.

Benjamin was accused of raping a fellow student in her dorm room last Halloween, and the university system’s procedure concluded in his expulsion in February. 

Defense Attorney Lee Kindlon believes that the university’s haste to dismiss Benjamin reflects a concern over its public image.

“As [schools] compete for student dollars, the last thing they want is to have their reputation unsafe. The lives they end up destroying is a really unfortunate consequence,” Kindlon said. 

Although the court decision cleared Benjamin of charges, the university performs its processes independently of the court system. Because of its administrative nature, the Student Conduct System does not need to delay its proceedings until after a court decision, according to the student code of conduct, Community Rights and Responsibilities.

Kindlon does not agree with how quickly the members of student conduct committee make their decision. “I always ask them to allow the judicial process to play itself out.”

Unlike Kindlon, the University Police Department does not agree with the court decision exonerating Benjamin.

Investigator Timothy Brady, who testified for the prosecution, believes the jury “did not understand the facts of the case.”

In court, Kindlon questioned the reliability of a witness and the intoxication level of the victim. Based on the outcome, the attorney said, “I think that it was clear to the jury that the people [the prosecution] had not met their burden of proof.”

The prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Benjamin was guilty, but according to Kindlon, they were unable to prove that the victim was too intoxicated to consent.

In the university’s decisions, their burden of proof is preponderance of evidence, which is lower than the burden of proof in the judicial system.

Although UPD found the victim unresponsive, they could only estimate the blood alcohol content. According to Brady, it was somewhere around .25; the legal BAC limit to drive a car is .08. He has noticed that sexual assault is more common when there is also alcohol involved.

Kindlon contended that the witness’s swipe card access to the residential building “told a very different story” about the witness’s statements, which he said enabled him to demonstrate that she was not telling the truth. 

However, Inspector Paul Burlingame and Brady firmly believe that all the witnesses were reliable. Brady said that an understanding of how the swipe card access works at the university would display the witness as credible.

Brady lamented that the victim was “pretty much victimized a second time” as the result of the court procedure and outcome.

According to Burlingame, the prosecution uses any officers that they think will make their case. UPD presented information to the Assistant District Attorney, Jennifer McCanney, who prosecuted this case.

Brady said UPD has no part in making decisions on whether or not students are dismissed from the school in cases like Benjamin’s.

“We remain neutral. We just take the case where the facts take us,” the investigator said.

If Benjamin had been found guilty, he would have faced 25 years in state prison, mandatory registration as a sex offender, and various fines over $1,000.

Kindlon said that the decision allows Benjamin to have a fresh start.

He likened the criminal justice system to a “giant behemoth that moves very slowly. [It is] regulating and doing the wrong things for the illusion of safety.” The attorney cited that crime and incarceration are dropping at the same time, and he does not think that is a coincidence.

On the decision of whether or not a campus-wide alert was necessary, Deputy Chief Aran Mull said it was not. Even though the incident was considered a Clery offense, because Benjamin was arrested, there was no longer an ongoing threat to the community.

Burlingame echoed this as he said that even sending out an alert to receive community feedback on the incident would not have been necessary because UPD quickly identified the people involved.

UPD notices have the highest readership out of all group notifications, according to Mull. Sending out alerts for every incident would diminish the influence of the notices and result in fewer people reading them.

UPD “uses statistics to determine the most significant threats to people and property on the university,” according to Mull.

At UAlbany, students must adhere to federal, state, and local laws on top of the student code of conduct.

The FOIA report indicated that Residential Life staff called in the incident and was present as UPD initially responded. Similar incidents have resulted in Residential Life staff reporting the situation to UPD, as Sarah Crowley of the University at Buffalo’s The Spectrum wrote in a Oct. 12 article, Resident Advisors may report a situation for students who do not feel comfortable coming forward.

Other reports of sexual assault on college campuses such as Brock Turner at Stanford University and Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University have recently called attention to the ways universities react to reports of sexual assault.

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Elise Coombs, a Syracuse native, is the editor-in-chief of the Albany Student Press. She is the co-Vice President of the UAlbany Mock Trial team, a member of Presidential Honors Society, and a peer mentor for the pre-law section of Writing and Critical Inquiry. After her time at UAlbany, she plans to go to law school and become a First Amendment lawyer.

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