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Prejudging guilt: This online story is both sad and instructive

Singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, described in one national news article as an “indie-rock darling/millennial idol,” wants to be known for his professional creativity and the music he loves, not the rape he didn’t commit.

Unfortunately, things haven’t turned out just the way Oberst optimally envisioned them after a figurative grenade was lobbed his way late last year. The explosive charge leveled against him came courtesy of a young woman who stated on an Internet forum that the performer raped her when she was a teenager.

There was only one problem with that sexual assault allegation: It was patently false.

Once the charge surfaced online, though, it predictably took on a life of its own, with the story spreading to other sites and inviting comments from many readers, including influential posters.

One of the latter wrote that, “I, unfortunately, believe this rape accusation to be true.”

It’s hard to know how that commentator and willing judge of Oberst’s character felt in the wake of the alleged victim’s recant retreat from her statement that Oberst had raped her. The woman did a decided flip-flop in a recently issued public statement that denoted her accusation as “100% false.” She stated that her motivation for targeting Oberst as a violent sex offender was at least partially “to get attention.”

That might not especially placate the entertainer, who has filed a $1.2-million libel lawsuit against the woman.

The matter might reasonably prompt many of our readers in North Carolina and elsewhere to reflect for a moment on the criminal justice system.

It is easy to agree, of course, that the legal rights of a crime victim must be promoted by a full criminal investigation and the lawful punishment of a guilty party.

Concomitantly, when a person is accused of a crime, it must certainly be of equal importance that judgment be withheld prior to proof of guilt.

That was certainly not how things played out in Oberst’s case, with many people prejudging him based on a prefabricated statement and no subsequent evidence to corroborate it.

Source: The Washington Post, “The inside story of a reputation-ruining, idol-killing Internet hoax,” Caitlin Dewey, July 15, 2014

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