A brief gag order hearing in the Eric Frimpong rape case Tuesday morning yielded the ironic net result of the presiding judge, Brian Hill, holding off on making any ruling and both prosecuting and defense attorneys discussing the investigation into the charges against the UCSB soccer player.
Frimpong, a UCSB senior and member of the men’s soccer team, was arrested Saturday, February 17, after a female UCSB student claimed she was assaulted and raped on the beach beneath Isla Vista’s Del Playa Drive by a black man with a slender build and an “island” accent. Precisely how Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department investigators came to arrest Frimpong, a citizen of Ghana, has not been disclosed, as such details have been deemed too important to the ongoing investigation. Robert Sanger, Frimpong’s attorney, said his client is innocent and that Frimpong even submitted a DNA sample to investigators to help prove it. However, following the news of Frimpong’s arrest, a second woman came forward with claims that she too was assaulted by the athlete, causing police to arrest Frimpong for a second time on Friday, February 23. The charges have resulted in a collective sum of $350,000 in bail.
In response to a Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department press release detailing Frimpong’s first arrest, Sanger declared that he would seek a gag order in the case. Sanger, who usually declines to speak to news media, spoke to various news outlets last week about the “inappropriate” tone he noticed in the press release. In court this morning, he explained to Judge Hill that undue media scrutiny on his client could result in his inability to get a fair trial in Santa Barbara County. “There’s no reason to make this more speculative and sensational then it already is,” he said. Sanger also mentioned that he had worked in previous cases in which a gag order had been imposed and that he felt the lack of media manipulation helped the proceedings run more smoothly. “We want to keep this contained,” Sanger said.
Part of the gag order Sanger proposed to Hill included a prohibition of the Sheriff’s Department from issuing further press releases. “If the sheriff is out there, making statements [like the previous one], then we may be required again to respond,” Sanger said. County counsel Kerry Scott reasoned that such a restriction would unduly bind investigators in further researching the rape claims, as the publication of the first release was crucial in bringing forward the second alleged victim. Judge Hill declined to approve Sanger’s gag order, instead suggesting that the two attorneys work out an agreement to decide what information may be related to reporters.
Prosecuting attorney Mary Barron also brought a motion before Judge Hill—specifically, an oral argument encouraging the imposition of a restraining order on UCSB student Patrick Monahan, reportedly a close friend of Frimpong’s. Barron claimed Monahan had an exchange with one of the alleged victims that she considered witness intimidation. She offered a printout transcript of the conversation between Monahan and “Jane Doe No. 1”, which occurred on Facebook.com, an online social network popular amongst UCSB students. The details of the conversation were not disclosed, but Judge Hill said he would only consider such a measure if Barron submitted the proposal in writing at the next hearing, which is scheduled to take place Thursday, March 1. Monahan declined to comment.
Facing His Fans
Judging from reports outside of the courtroom, it appears Frimpong is enjoying support from friends in Isla Vista and Santa Barbara. Facebook.com, ever the medium for social interaction amongst college students, is hosting a club titled “The Eric Frimpong Legal Defense Fund.” Administered by Monahan, the group currently boasts a membership of 156 people and aims to collect $25,000 as a retainer for legal counsel.
One of these members is recent UCSB graduate and San Diego resident Julia Witton, who met Frimpong through her sister, a member of the UCSB Women’s Soccer team and one of Frimpong’s roommates. Witton counts Frimpong as a family friend and says the showing of support is indicative of the shock many feel at the charges being lobbied against the soccer star. “My family has been pretty affected by it,” Witton said. “I am just so tired about reading about the incident in the newspaper, in articles that are so one-sided.” Witton said the abundance of coverage has led to a perception of Frimpong as nothing more than a rapist—not as the friend and good person she knows. “I think all of his friends are trying to stick behind him because he’s the kind of guy who would never do something like this,” she said. “They got the wrong guy.”
Although Witton admitted she was not present during the night the rapes allegedly occurred, she feels compelled to remind people that most commentators do not know the facts. “My opinion is that, yes, they have arrested someone and, yes, someone was raped.… [But] has there been anything proven?” Witton said. “I just want the community to know—like some random family in Goleta who’s a fan of UCSB soccer—not to open the newspaper and think, ‘Oh my god, Eric Frimpong is a rapist.’”
One point that Witton said has been misreported is that the rape charges have resulted in Frimpong being dropped from the roster of the Kansas City Wizards, a professional soccer team. In fact, Wizards spokesperson Rob Thompson said that Frimpong was never drafted in the first place; although he was among the soccer players flown out for tryouts, he was not one the handful who made the cut.
“Alleged Victims,” Not “Accusers”
While not necessarily attempting to counter the public sentiment in support of Frimpong, Alena Donovan—a community education coordinator at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center—spoke with The Independent on the tendency for people to rally behind a friend facing rape charges, but to forget the person claiming to have been raped, as U.S. law protect the alleged victim’s anonymity. “If you reviewed hundreds of sexual violence cases in the media, you’d see [this trend] over and over again… It makes it really tough in cases like these, because the survivors are often forgotten,” Donovan said. She noted that in cases like the Kobe Bryant rape trial, the term for the person claiming to have been raped was often changed by reporters from “alleged victim” to “accuser,” which Donovan said had a more negative connotation.