Mimesis Law
28 May 2020

Mateen Cleaves: Lucky, But Luck Is Relative

December, 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Calling someone who’s been accused of rape “lucky” may seem odd, but given the circumstances, former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves does seem pretty darn lucky:

Judge dismisses Cleaves rape case; prosecutor to appeal

It isn’t just the dismissal that makes him lucky, but the reason for the dismissal. If the article is correct, defendants in Genesee County*, Michigan have it much better than a lot of defendants elsewhere:

A judge ruled there was not sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.

“There is insufficient evidence on charges,” Judge Cathy Dowd of 67th District Court ruled Monday. “This case is dismissed.”

It takes probable cause to go ahead with charges. There has to be a finding of that somehow, and it’s almost always up to a judge at a preliminary hearing or a grand jury convening in secret. After that point, it’s often next to impossible to get a case thrown out prior to trial due to insufficient evidence.

Although it isn’t entirely clear from the article, what probably happened was that the judge did not find probable cause existed after holding a preliminary hearing. That’s something that’s almost as unusual as a grand jury failing to indict.

Probable cause is a lower standard than reasonable doubt. When a prosecutor presents a case to a grand jury, it’s almost always a one-sided pitch. There’s normally no interference from the defendant at all, so it’s no wonder prosecutors almost always prefer it to a preliminary hearing. A low standard and no major opposition clears the path for charges to proceed.

On the other hand, the defense gets to attend a preliminary hearing. They get to ask questions and argue. They may present an offer of proof. Still, though, it almost always results in a finding of probable cause by the judge. The judge is usually an ex-prosecutor. And again, it’s a low standard.

There’s usually limited or no opportunity for a defendant to challenge a judge’s finding of probable cause based on it not being supported by the evidence, and any issues with the probable cause finding go away when a defendant pleads guilty or loses at trial. Why wouldn’t a judge let things go ahead and leave only the jury to blame should the defendant walk?

Here, the judge didn’t pass the buck. She dismissed the case. Had she not, it would’ve been next to impossible for Cleaves after that point to get a dismissal due to lack of evidence. That’s what most judges will tell you trials are for; let the jury decide.

Jury trials are complicated. Even the simplest ones involve a lot of behind-the-scenes work. There are motions and arguments. What the jury hears and sees is carefully filtered by the judge. Going through with a jury trial is a big deal, and it’s one that carries a lot of risk. Juries can be unpredictable. Most defendants would love to give a judge, more of a known variable than a group of not-yet-identified ordinary citizens, as many chances as possible to think about the facts in depth and decide if there’s enough evidence to proceed.

Plus, Cleaves may well have lost at trial:

Defense attorney Frank Manley described the case outside court as a “she said-she said-she said-she said-she said” case of rape that “just didn’t happen.” He said there were too many inconsistencies in the story by the Mount Morris woman in her mid-20s who brought the allegations.

Even an alleged rape victim with an ever-evolving narrative might present herself well enough to convince a jury the defendant committed a crime. Nothing is a guarantee in a jury trial. Police may not have believed her, but she’s had a lot of time since then to focus her story, and the prosecutor has figured out how to sell it:

“Four police officers on the scene determined no assault or crime had been committed and the complainant also stated, ‘I was not assaulted’ on the night of the event. It just didn’t add up. Judge Dowd’s ruling is supported by all the evidence and facts presented.”

In her summation Monday, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lisa Lindsey said the fact the alleged victim made statements which questioned some of her behavior — admitting to kissing Cleaves and not telling him “no” — made her rape charges that much more believable.

“If she wanted to make something up, she would have said she said ‘no’ to him,” Lindsey said.

Judges and cops are a lot more cynical than your typical juror. The gut reaction of most people not regularly involved in a case like this is that someone wouldn’t just make up allegations like that. The prosecutor’s claim that it’s even less likely someone would make up a story with holes might resonate with some jurors. Plus, never underestimate the willingness of people to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach when the person who’s going to suffer is a stranger accused of something really awful.

Plus, there are some tough facts for Cleaves’s lawyers to address:

The woman said Cleaves sexually assaulted her at a Knights Inn motel room after both had attended a charity golf outing and a gathering with her friends at a bar.

She said she twice escaped from the hotel room both were in before Cleaves pulled and dragged her back inside. After leaving a third time, she ended up in the room of a woman next door, Coleen Dowdall, who called police.

Dowdall spent a day on the stand and testified she saw Cleaves pulling and dragging a naked woman back into his room. Cleaves was unclothed as well, she said.

Dowdall said that while the woman did not say Cleaves raped her, she did tell Dowdall: “I couldn’t fight him. I just laid there” during sex.

That’s another big reason why Cleaves is lucky. “Rape” isn’t some magic word whose absence prevents rape charges from going forward. A woman saying she didn’t fight a guy and just laid there is often more than enough. The fact another woman even saw the alleged victim being dragged naked back into a hotel room by the naked defendant makes it pretty remarkable that a judge found the evidence to be insufficient.

If Cleaves went through all of this because of a completely innocent sexual encounter with a woman who turned out to be crazy, he’s not lucky by any normal stretch of the imagination. But luck is relative in the criminal justice system. It could’ve been much worse.

*While the case was in Genesee County (Flint), Michigan, the county prosecutor recused himself and the Wayne County district attorney handled the case.

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  • Ken
    7 December 2016 at 9:45 pm - Reply

    ‘prosecutor to appeal’ Says it all. Trial will most likely happen.
    IOW, No real dismissal only a delay in proceedings should be expected.