Honor case highlights procedures

Ex-student questions policies after guilty verdict at plagiarism trial, alleges unfair court, appeals process

“Honor, of course, is a complex and multidimensional principle,” according to the University Honor Committee’s constitutional bylaws. “A moral aspiration that defies simple characterizations.”

Perhaps because of this sometimes ambiguous nature, the ideal of honor, and its associated body at the University, the Honor Committee, has on numerous occasions faced questioning by University students, ex-students and members of the greater community. This past August, the system came under scrutiny for its Semester at Sea policies, which have since been revised. In that incident, two ex-Semester at Sea students and others familiar with those students’ cases alleged that several Honor policies were unfair and potentially in violation of the Honor Committee’s own constitution. Now, another ex-University student has made similar allegations about the honor system, calling into question procedures and standards meant to ensure the fairness of case investigations and adjudications.

The former student, whose name is being withheld by The Cavalier Daily on her request, said she was brought up on plagiarism charges by her then-Psychology 456 professor, Angeline Lillard, for a final paper last April. Lillard, who taught the class “Child Development Research and Schooling Today,” declined to comment about specific Honor cases, but an e-mail Lillard sent April 30 — included in the Honor trial evidence packet as the student provided to The Cavalier Daily — stated, “Your paper for Psych 456 is largely plagiarized. Given your 3rd year standing at UVa, your having completed [PSYC 305/6], your correct use of quotations and citations in places, and the vast extent of copying and sometimes reshuffling of words, I have to think this was intentional, and therefore out of respect for the University, integrity, and the educational enterprise, I must submit it and the sources found for consideration by the Honor Committee.”

The student said such instances of alleged plagiarism were unintentional and were the product of sloppy note-taking, hurried writing and inattentive editing. The alleged source of the plagiarism, a paper by John F. Wakefield titled “A Brief History of Textbooks: Where Have We Been All These Years?”, had been quite useful, the ex-student said.

“When I found it, I knew immediately that this was it,” she said. “I had one of those lightbulb moments. It covered all the points I wanted to make.”

For this reason, the student said, she heavily relied on Wakefield while writing her paper. She also said, however, that she never intentionally plagiarized and actually cited Wakefield on several occasions. A copy of the paper, included in the Honor trial evidence packet, includes those citations.

“Obviously, the paper is a mess,” the ex-student stated in her personal statement, originally read at trial Oct. 26. She later added, “While I thought I had cited enough to each of my sources, I didn’t proofread and didn’t see that I had made some mistakes. If I had tried to pull a fast one on Professor Lillard, I most likely would have never cited the source.”

At trial, a jury composed of randomly selected University students found the student guilty, agreeing with the counsel for the community’s opening contention that the student’s alleged plagiarism was intentional and serious in nature. Citing the Honor Committee’s current standard of intent — did the student know or should the student have known that the act in question could be considered an Honor offense — counsel argued that the paper was intentionally plagiarized, because the student had purchased the book “Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing” and because she had written at least one substantial paper before. As for triviality, counsel contended that “Lillard will testify that she believes this pattern of lacking citation proves that [name withheld by The Cavalier Daily] deliberately plagiarized on her final paper.”

Now, though, the student — whose appeal both on the grounds of “good faith and fundamental fairness” and “new evidence” — was denied Dec. 7, has alleged that several Honor procedures were not followed during her trial and that she was the victim of a faulty system. Similarly, Hoos Against Single Sanction President Sam Leven, a second-year Law student who assisted the ex-student in putting together her appeal and who also serves as an Honor counsel, said he finds fault with the current system. Honor Committee Chair Jessica Huang declined to comment about specific Honor cases but noted that the procedures in place are carefully scripted and designed to ensure fairness.

The ex-student, who has not yet decided whether to take legal action against the University, said that a series of incidents at trial compromised the fundamental fairness assured every accused student in the Honor Committee’s constitution and bylaws. She said her trial chair failed to conduct the trial in a manner befitting the circumstances and was unable to restrain an “accusatory and argumentative” counsel for the community, who “tried for the win instead of the truth.”

Included in the ex-student’s appeal are several claims regarding her trial’s jury and chair. “During my trial, several jury members fell or started to fall asleep,” she said. And although the one jury member “who actually dozed off” was dismissed by the trial chair, the idea that the case was decided with one less juror and by a group “which overall seemed disinterested in the proceedings” is distressing, the ex-student said.

“A trial chair may dismiss a juror at his or her individual discretion,” Huang said in reference to general Honor Committee procedures, declining to comment about specific cases. As a matter of principle, Huang said, sleeping would most likely be a significant enough reason to dismiss a jury member, but such a dismissal does not require the trial chair to fill the vacated jury spot.

Additionally, the trial chair seemed unfamiliar with her responsibilities, the ex-student said, noting that the factual contentions for each side initially were not read.

“My counsel reminded [the trial chair] of this procedure, but she had already tried to contact the first witness, Professor Freeman, via telephone,” the student stated in her appeal. “He did not answer, so she started reading the factual contentions ... while she read mine, the phone rang ... [and] she continued to read, despite the disturbance.”

Adding to what the ex-student referred to as the “unfair atmosphere of the trial room,” the counsel for the community was belligerent at times, the ex-student said. She alleged in her appeal that on several occasions the counsel for the community asked circular or accusatory questions and noted that although the counsel was occasionally asked by the trial chair to refrain from such behavior, he persisted, at one point asking an almost identical question multiple times.

“He was going for the win,” the ex-student said. “His questions were definitely argumentative in nature, and he asked questions that were out of scope, too. Some of them were confusing; I had to ask for clarification several times, as did the trial chair.”

The counsels for the community listed on the evidence packet, third-year College student JJ Litchford and second-year College student Scott Bowman, declined to speak about the student’s case or about general counsel procedures, instead referring The Cavalier Daily to Huang. Huang also declined to speak about specific cases but generally noted that Honor counsels should always seek the truth, as opposed to a courtroom victory.

“Our counsels are trained not to look at cases as a win-lose situation,” Huang said, adding that trial chairs are similarly trained to halt proceedings if a counsel deviates from his stated responsibilities or if Honor procedures are not followed correctly. Additionally, an official trial observer is on hand at all Honor trials to “make sure everyone does the right thing,” Huang said.

Other aspects of the trial proceedings, though, imply that while this policy may work in theory, it fails in practice, the ex-student said. At one point in the trial, the ex-student said, the trainee for the counsel for the community — “sitting in the jury’s direct line of vision” — started to act unprofessionally, rolling her eyes and “making faces” while the ex-student explained her side of the story.

“That would be something addressed in training, on a professional conduct level,” Huang said when asked about a hypothetical instance of a trainee behaving in such a manner. “But I have full confidence that someone addressing the case is deciding the case as they should. I highly doubt that University of Virginia students are going to let facial expressions determine what they think about a case.”

It is situations like these, though, in which the ex-student and Leven said the trial chair should take a more active role, asserting his or her authority instead of simply letting potential problems slide.

“I would really like to see our trial chairs get more involved,” Leven said. “In the case of trial counsels, they are supposed to be aiming for the truth. I feel that for the most part they are aiming for the truth, but that’s not everyone. I feel like we’ve had some problems.”

There is sometimes reluctance among trial chairs to intervene during trials, Leven said, even though, as Huang noted, they are trained for the position.

That alleged reluctance, however, is not the most glaring fault with the current system, Leven said.

“What I really think the biggest flaw in our system is, is our appeals process,” Leven said.

During his five years of experience working with Honor, only one Honor Committee in his opinion proved capable of making entirely objective appellate decisions, Leven said. Moreover, Leven and the ex-student alleged a potential conflict of interest inherent within the current Honor appeals process.

“They are deciding whether to grant an appeal that basically says someone else on the Honor Committee screwed up,” Leven said.

Though Huang noted that efforts are made by the Committee to avoid potential conflicts of interest during an appeal, Leven said the fact that Honor oversees its own appeals leaves open the possibility that Honor Committee members will share a competing interest while attempting to make appellate decisions.

“A lot of the people, even if they haven’t served on the same case or something like that, are good friends,” Leven added. “And that’s understandable; they participate in bonding activities and spend just about every Sunday together. But it’s fundamentally wrong ... They aren’t necessarily able to make entirely objective decisions.”

Huang, however, said her experience serving on Honor appeal review committees has shown the opposite.

“Having sat on numerous appeals, we will go through each point that is brought up,” Huang said. “At no point is it about whether so-and-so did a good job.”

Both the ex-student and Leven said that even if current Committee members are deciding appeals objectively, the potential for problems — or, at the very least, perceived problems — still exists. As the Honor Committee’s current Code of Ethics states, “For purposes hereof, a ‘Conflict of Interest’ shall be defined as a situation in which any Honor Committee member, Advisor or Counsel has, with respect to the case in question, a competing interest which would make it difficult to fulfill his or her Honor Committee responsibilities fairly or, even lacking evidence of such competing interest, would create an appearance of impropriety and thereby undermine confidence in the Honor System.”

Huang declined to comment about whether she thinks the current process might be seen as running counter to the above portion of the Code, and similarly declined to comment about whether the current process might be seen as flawed in any way by some University community members.

“It’s not my place to speak on behalf of what students think,” she said.

Huang also said, though, that the current appeals process is in place to protect and uphold the rights of students.

“Every single appeal is vetted by legal counsel,” Huang said. “That’s the double check.”

Additionally, Huang said, it is important to note that the appeals process is not a retrial, nor is it about whether an Honor offense occurred. That is why, Huang said, the appeals process is overseen by the Honor Committee.

“Thus it is imperative that the Committee members who sit on appeal decisions to be well-versed with our bylaws and, as you said, intimately familiar with our process,” Huang stated in an e-mail. “Jurors are the sole deciders of whether an accused student is guilty of act, intent, and non-triviality, and it is with these criteria that they make their decision. These two deciding bodies are not evaluating the same thing.”

Huang noted that the appeals review board, composed of Honor Committee members elected by the student body, is tasked with performing an internal review.

“As such, Committee members are qualified both in training of Honor policies and procedures and in the power that the student body has chosen to delegate to them,” Huang stated. “Thus, Committee members serve on appeals in the interest of the greater student body and Community of Trust.”

On the other hand, Leven said he believes students would be better served with an appeals process overseen by an outside body.

University Board of Visitors member Glynn Key said Honor appeals have always gone through the Honor Committee as opposed to an outside body. Key, who served as Honor Chair during the 1985-86 term, said this is because the Honor Committee is extended its authority over all Honor proceedings through the Board.

“If people have any questions or any concerns, that’s something they should be coming to the committee with,” Huang said, noting that people should be asking questions to understand how and why the system works.

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