Shooting in the dark

It is wrong to assume that Johnathan Perkins

The Cavalier Daily managing board was wrong to draw the many assumptions, inferences and unfounded conclusions about the honor trial of Johnathan Perkins that were present in its January 18 lead editorial, "A degree of injustice." Moreover, to proceed from these assumptions to conclusions about the implications of this trial for the honor system and the longstanding sanction policy is patently fallacious.

Perkins - it appears from the record - elected a trial closed to the public. No reporters or editors from The Cavalier Daily were in attendance to hear the facts and arguments presented to the jury. Even if the trial had been one open to the public, only jurors and the Honor Committee members adjudicating the trial are ever present during jury deliberations.

Yet the managing board felt free to write that "it is likely he was acquitted because the jury hearing his case decided the act in question did not meet the threshold for significance that is necessary for convicting an individual of an honor offense" and that it was "almost certainly" a case of jury nullification - that is, jurors unwilling to vote guilty because of the single sanction. I do not believe I have ever seen a more definite statement with so little basis in fact.

There is, of course, a chance the editors are correct, that events played out as they assert, but they do not have a shred of evidence to back up these claims. Perhaps there were underlying facts not presented to the public that changed the very nature of the case. It is possible there may have been some element that introduced a reasonable doubt into the minds of enough jurors as to whether Perkins was guilty, or maybe he presented an exceptionally compelling defense on the grounds of significance.

The truth of the matter, however, is we do not know anything about the case presented at trial, and we know even less about the actions or motivations of those students on the jury. This confidentiality is not meant to stymie discussion of the honor system, but it is meant to protect students who go through these processes.

Honor Committee procedure, however, is freely available to the public. We do know that students are afforded counsel in their defense; that at least a four-fifths majority of jurors is required to convict a student on the questions of act and knowledge, and a simple majority is required on the question of significance; and that jurors must believe beyond a reasonable doubt the assertions of the Community to find a student guilty of an honor offense. How this process was applied to the facts at hand in Perkins' case, however, should not be subject to such idle speculation.

Another neglected fact on the part of The Cavalier Daily is that for University officials to discuss publicly any student disciplinary proceedings is a violation of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act. The University administration is barred by law from engaging in what The Cavalier Daily termed "unilateral action" in providing state bars with an account of Perkins' honor trial and the circumstances surrounding it. Perhaps the only appropriate inference to make in this matter is that Perkins and the Law School administration came to some accord regarding the school's public commentary on the matter.

Debate about the single sanction is decades old, and student ownership of the honor system is an important part of life at the University. To go so blindly swinging at its efficacy, to draw so many unfounded assertions based on speculation on one case, however, is a disservice to the readership of The Cavalier Daily and the University at large.

Charles Harris is a 2011 alumnus of the Law School and was chair of the Honor Committee from 2010-2011.

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