Written by: Mallory Bullard
Senior Research and Writing Editor, American Journal of Trial Advocacy
Ask yourself, “What do rape cases have in common?” Many responses might be racing through your mind. You may be thinking of words such as: victim, consent, or maybe even force. While those words are all associated with rape cases, the uniqueness of the crime is a commonality that is often overlooked. Rape is distinguishable because “[n]o other violent crime is so fraught with controversy, so enmeshed in dispute and in the politics of gender and sexuality.”[i]
As of late, several high-profile rape cases have spread like wildfire on social media and earned top spots on both local and national news. The story of Megan Rondini is one of the most recent to gain national attention. Megan Rondini was a former college student at the University of Alabama who committed suicide after reporting that a prominent man in the Tuscaloosa area raped her.[ii] As a result, Megan’s parents filed a wrongful death suit in federal court against her alleged attacker (Terry Bunn, Jr.), the Tuscaloosa County sheriff and two employees of the department, as well as two university employees.[iii] Although the case will proceed in federal court, it is pertinent to note that the alleged attacker has not been charged with any crime.
Megan Rondini’s Story:
In July of 2015, Megan Rondini went to police claiming that Terry Bunn, Jr., a man from a wealthy and influential family in the area, raped her after leaving a bar, and possibly drugged her.[iv] Megan told the investigator that she “blacked out,” and when she finally came to, she was in Bunn’s Mercedes and being driven to his home.[v] Upon arriving, Megan “repeatedly asked  Bunn to take her home or back to her friend’s residence and he refused.”[vi] Alternatively, according to the complaint, Bunn directed Megan to his bedroom, demanded that she get on the bed, and then “forcefully removed her clothing.”[vii] While describing the events to police, Megan said she “repeatedly informed  Bunn that she did not want to have sex with him and that she needed to rejoin her friends.”[viii] However, the complaint states that Bunn “sexually attacked, abused, and assaulted Megan for over 30 minutes against her will and without her consent.”[ix] After Bunn had passed out, Megan claims she was forced to climb out of a second story window to escape because Bunn had locked the only exit.[x] Once Megan was off of the property, she went to the hospital and spoke with police.[xi] In the days and months after the alleged attack, Megan Rondini sought counseling for trauma caused by the attack.[xii] Although not relevant to this article, the complaint alleges that the University of Alabama failed to provide proper assistance and accommodation to Megan Rondini for her “diagnosed anxiety, depression, [and] PTSD . . . .”[xiii]
In the lawsuit filed by Megan Rondini’s parents, it explains that the investigator dismissed Megan’s rape allegations in part because she did not kick or hit her attacker.[xiv] The investigator concluded that Megan never tried to “resist,” despite repeatedly asking to leave and turning away when Bunn tried to kiss her.[xv] Furthermore, the complaint states that former District Attorney Lyn Head called Megan’s father three weeks after the alleged assault to inform him that she would not be presenting the case to the grand jury because she deemed the assault “consensual” after reviewing Megan’s videotaped interview.[xvi]
These allegations combined with other statements and depictions of the incident, released in various news articles, have sparked some serious controversy over the composition and interpretation of various states’ sex crime laws; specifically, Alabama’s laws.[xvii] Audiences are outraged by the way in which Megan Rondini’s (potential) case was handled, proclaiming “archaic” rape laws are to blame for the investigator concluding Megan did not “earnestly resist” her attacker, and thus no rape occurred.[xviii] This begs the question: is a victim required to physically resist an attacker in order to establish rape? If so, how much resistance?
Unfortunately, there is no clear and concise answer. Rape and sexual assault laws can be difficult and confusing to understand. Rape laws have evolved over time, but remnants of the old English common law continue to lurk behind state statutes and case law.[xix] The result is inconsistent terminology in sex crime laws and a variety of elements that must be proven from state to state.[xx] For instance, terms such as rape, sexual assault, forcible compulsion, and even consent have different meanings depending on the jurisdiction.[xxi]
Megan Rondini’s story has provoked many to take a closer look at the sex crime laws in Alabama. There are two types of rape in Alabama– first and second degree.[xxii] Pursuant to Alabama law, “[a] person commits the crime of rape when he or she engages in sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex by forcible compulsion or when the opposite sex is incapable of giving consent or by reason of the ages of the parties.”[xxiii] The subsequent comments to the Alabama Code explain the language of the statutes and show an interest in continuing to define rape as “the unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and without her consent.”[xxiv] However, what exactly these sex crime laws require in order to establish each element may not be so cut and dry. Unlike most other criminal laws, the complex nature of the crime of rape continues to puzzle people.
The variability in the terminology and required elements of sex crimes may be to blame for the substantial gap between the legal definition and the general understandings of researchers or lay people about what behavior is covered by a certain sex crime.[xxv] Thus, it is pertinent to look not only at codified laws, but to delve deeper into an individual state’s case law when trying to decipher whether conduct is covered by a certain sex crime law. Meanwhile, Megan Rondini’s story continues to provoke conversation concerning the various (and inconsistent) sex crime laws throughout the United States. Could it be time for the Model Penal Code to push for consistency?[xxvi]
[i] Erin Price, Comment, The Model Penal Code’s New Approach to Rape and Intoxication, 48 U. Pac. L. Rev. 423, 423 (2017) (quoting David Lisak, et al., False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases, 16 Violence Against Women 1318 (2010)).
[ii] Katie J.M. Baker, How Accusing A Powerful Man of Rape Drove A College Student To Suicide, BuzzFeed News, https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/how-accusing-a-powerful-man-of-rape-drove-a-college-student?utm_term=.hoyw78ARBJ#.bmExnQaXOq (posted on June 22, 2017).
[iii] Complaint at 1, Rondini v. Bunn, (temporary No. 7:17-CV-01114), filed, (July 2, 2017).
[iv] Id. at 5.
[v] Baker, supra note 3.
[vi] Complaint at 6, Rondini v. Bunn, (temporary No. 7:17-CV-01114).
[x] Complaint at 6, Rondini v. Bunn (temporary No. 7:17-CV-01114).
[xi] Id. at 7-8.
[xii] Id. at 11.
[xiii] Id. at 15.
[xiv] Complaint at 10, Rondini v. Bunn, (temporary No. 7:17-CV-01114) (emphasis added).
[xv] Baker, supra note 3.
[xvi] Complaint at 12, Rondini v. Bunn (temporary No. 7:17-CV-01114).
[xvii] See Baker, (detailing Megan Rondini’s story concerning the rape and aftermath).
[xviii] Id. (stating that Alabama rape law requires victims to “earnestly resist” their attackers).
[xix] Carol E. Tracy, et al., Rape and Sexual Assault in the Legal System, (2013), available at http://jpp.whs.mil/Public/docs/04-Meetings/sub-20150507/03_Rape_SexAsslt_LegalSystem_WLP_AEQuitas_20120605.pdf (explaining that, historically, rape began as a property crime, not as a crime against a person, and that the issue of how much force is required continues to change).
[xx] Id. at 1.
[xxi] Id. at 2.
[xxii] Ala. Code §§ 13A-6-61 to -62 (1975).
[xxiii] Victoria Ferreira, Rape, Criminal Offenses and Defenses in Alabama § R10 (3d ed.) (last updated June 2017).
[xxiv] Id. (quoting Owens v. State, 191 So. 899 (Ala. Ct. App. 1939)) (emphasis in original).
[xxvi] The Model Penal Code: Sexual Assault and Related Offenses, American Law Institute https://www.ali.org/projects/show/sexual-assault-and-related-offenses/ (discussing how the MPC has made recommendations to add uniformity to rape and sex crime laws and explaining how the proposed amendments would provide definitions for terminology used in defining words used in sex crime laws).