In Murray Case, Presumption of Innocence Crashes Headlong Into Respect for Survivors

The mayor’s response to allegations that he raped minors has drawn more criticism than the allegations themselves.

Earlier this week, a fourth man came forward with accusations that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray paid him for sex as a teen decades ago. It’s an unwelcome development for a mayor who, until news of the first three allegations broke last month, appeared to be sailing comfortably toward re-election.

The allegations, which include raping a minor, began with a lawsuit from a man named Delvonn Heckard and were first reported by The Seattle Times. They haven’t sunk the mayor yet. According to Murray’s re-election spokesperson, donations to the already cash-glutted campaign have continued to come in over the past month. But a small number of local leaders have pulled their support for Seattle’s first openly gay mayor—not because of the allegations themselves, but because of how Murray has responded to them: by calling attention to the criminal histories of his accusers in an attempt to cast doubt on their accusations. These critics have said that such rhetoric is unacceptable, pointing to the fact that the argument that Murray is making is one often used to discredit true allegations of assault or abuse, despite the fact that reports of rape later confirmed as false are exceedingly rare.

That critique raises another important question: If it is inappropriate for Murray to question the credibility of his accusers, how can he then fully defend himself? In fact, the allegations against Murray create a conflict between two sacred values: the presumption of innocence of an accused person, and the imperative to believe those who claim abuse. How Seattle voters balance those two values may well determine the outcome of this year’s election.

Let’s back up. Murray’s initial response to the allegations was a simple denial. Then, in response to claims from multiple accusers that he had a mole on his genitals, Murray released a doctor’s note that stated there is no such mole.

Then Murray went on the offensive. In an editorial in The Stranger, Murray wrote, “I would never suggest that those with criminal histories cannot be victims of abuse. Rather, [Heckard’s] criminal history proves he cannot be trusted. He has been convicted of numerous crimes of dishonesty, including identity theft, fraud, false emergency reporting and forgery, in addition to numerous convictions related to robbery, theft, unlawful use of weapons, delivery of controlled substances, criminal conspiracy and even attempted kidnapping.”

For some, the editorial crossed a line by arguing that Heckard’s criminal history is a reason to doubt his story. Gender Justice League director Danni Askini, who is a survivor of assault, says Murray’s editorial amounts to victim-blaming. In a responding editorial published last month, she criticized Murray’s “tone of ‘not saying, just saying’ ” and called for the mayor to resign. “The mayor’s choice to publicly attack multiple alleged survivors,” she wrote, led her to conclude that “it would be best … for the mayor to step down” and address the allegations in court as a private citizen.

This week, city council candidate Jon Grant also called for Murray to step down, on similar grounds. When Murray “publicly called into question the character of his accusers, pointing to their criminal history and ‘troubled’ past as proof of their untrustworthiness,” Grant wrote in a press release, Murray committed “almost the textbook example of why abuse survivors rarely step forward.”

“The mayor has taken a course of action to attack the character of the accusers, and it feeds into the very real rape culture that exists in our society that deters or blocks survivors of abuse from ever coming forward,” Grant tells Seattle Weekly. “That’s the behavior that’s unsettling to me, regardless of the veracity of the claims.”

(It’s worth noting that Grant has the same campaign manager, John Wyble, as mayoral candidate Mike McGinn. Wyble says neither he nor McGinn influenced Grant’s decision to issue the press release.)

On Monday, Seattle Times editorial columnist Jonathan Martin published a piece titled “Shame on Mayor Murray’s attacks on accusers,” and compared Murray’s tactics to those of the Catholic Church.

But suppose Murray is innocent. If he is to effectively defend himself in the court of public opinion in an election year, isn’t Heckard’s specific criminal history relevant because it includes, as Murray wrote, “crimes of dishonesty,” such as fraud?

Critics say no. Campaign consultant and co-founder of Seattlish Hanna Brooks Olsen, who is also a survivor of domestic violence and assault (and a volunteer for the McGinn campaign), hasn’t heretofore said much about the allegations against Murray. But asked for her thoughts on how the mayor should have responded, she was blunt: “Every turn he’s taking is completely the opposite of what I would do from a public relations or messaging standpoint.”

“If you’re truly an ally, you don’t make the city and those survivors go through that with you,” says Olsen. “None of us ever should have had to wait for a press conference about something [not] on his dick.” (It should be noted that it was Heckard who brought up the mole in the first place.) And Seattle, she says, shouldn’t be subjected to the sordid, triggering spectacle of Seattle’s mayor attacking his accusers’ credibility on the grounds of their criminal records. “I would have advised him to finish his term and not run for re-election” once the lawsuit was initially filed, she says.

But isn’t that another way of saying Murray shouldn’t defend himself, and doesn’t that set a dangerous precedent? If unverified allegations are enough to remove a mayor, won’t anyone be able to topple any leader with groundless-but-scandalous accusations?

“I honestly can’t argue that that would be the worst thing,” she says. “If that fear of getting knocked down for your own behavior [were] greater,” says Olsen, leaders would have a bigger disincentive against doing things like sex abuse. Considering that the vast majority of sex abuse goes unreported and unremedied, while justice for survivors who do report is rare, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we lowered the standard of proof in sex assault cases in order to favor accusers more, even though this would necessarily make it easier to falsely accuse someone. “When you have a justice system that disproportionately does not get justice for victims,” says Olsen, “…it’s much harder to assume innocence.”

Democratic politico Michael Maddux, who was sexually abused as a minor, doesn’t go so far as to call for Murray’s resignation, but he too has become disillusioned with Seattle’s mayor and his handling of the allegations. For him, the Stranger editorial was the last straw. “I just don’t think it’s a good position to take when you’re in a place of power,” says Maddux, “like the mayor is, to say, ‘Just because you have this criminal history, you’re wrong.’”

Maddux also faults Heckard’s lawyer for using litigation to throw mud in the media. “There’s a lot of shitty, shady stuff Lincoln Beauregard is doing,” he says, such as using the discovery process to titillate reporters instead of to pursue the truth. But for Maddux, Murray is still responsible for his own reaction to Beauregard’s antics. “I can’t see myself supporting his re-election campaign at this point,” he says. “[Murray’s] response to these allegations is so beyond the pale that it makes me call into question how he views other issues around poverty and social justice.”

Much like the allegations themselves, Murray’s response to the lawsuit against him doesn’t appear to have sunk his mayoral bid. With a slew of endorsements from unions and more than $400,000 raised so far in contributions (16 times the amount raised by his closest opponent, Nikkita Oliver), the mayor remains a formidable incumbent. On the other hand, “that guy who’s accused of raping minors” isn’t the first thing you want voters to think of when they hear your name, and the news that a fourth man is now accusing him isn’t going to help Murray any.

But beyond the horse race of city politics, there’s a deeper issue at play here. If Murray is innocent, assuming his guilt could cause a travesty of justice. If he’s guilty, assuming his innocence could do the same to his victims. Unless incontrovertible proof of guilt or innocence emerges, it is an irresolvable trade-off.

Given the psychological tension created by this conflict, faulting Murray for his response to the allegations is arguably a kind of rhetorical escape hatch that allows people to condemn Murray without violating the principle of presumed innocence. The emotional appeal of avoiding a messy sex abuse dispute by condemning one of the parties on some other rationale is a real phenomenon, even if that other rationale is itself legitimate.

Speaking of which, is it? Should Murray step down, or stop campaigning, or at least shut up about the criminal histories of his accusers?

“I’m not willing to say he should step down,” says Maddux, “…but at the same time I do believe it’s in the best interest of the city and Ed and Ed’s family … of everybody, for us to turn away from litigating this in the press.”

This story, which has been edited, was published at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, May 4. Due to a technical error, the date displayed at the top of this post was originally May 3.