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Court: USF St. Petersburg investigation kept evidence from accused student

Former USF St. Petersburg student Samuel Goetz, accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student, has won a second hearing in his case. A panel of Pinellas County judges found the school withheld key testimony about his accuser. [Photo courtesy of Devin Rodriguez]
Published Dec. 21, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — After two years of academic investigations, civil court hearings and failed appeals, a panel of Pinellas County judges released a court order Friday that will give a former student body vice president at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg a second chance at clearing his name of the sexual assault allegations that led to his expulsion.

Samuel Goetz, referred to as "John Doe" in court documents, filed a lawsuit against the university claiming the Title IX inquiry into the allegations that got him expelled followed procedures designed to protect the accuser while denying him rights to due process. It's an argument he's made before in hearings that ultimately landed him in an appeals court earlier this month.

But now Goetz, 21, and Tampa attorney Mark O'Brien have new evidence to bolster their position — interviews with Goetz's accuser, referred to by the court as "Jane Roe," that were never provided to Goetz or the panel of students, faculty and staff members who found him guilty of sexual assault.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: A tangled quest for fairness as students accused of campus sex assault push back

In an interview Friday, O'Brien likened it to a law enforcement officer withholding evidence that could prove an accused person innocent.

"The documents USF didn't provide to my client were statements made by Ms. Roe in which she admitted that the sexual encounter between them was consensual," he said. "It wasn't until later, after she felt uneasy about it, that she changed her story to state it wasn't consensual."

The court's decision didn't end Goetz's fight to maintain his innocence, but it could mean a new start. The next step is another hearing before a USF panel where he will be allowed to share the newly discovered testimony.

A USF St. Petersburg spokeswoman said the school would have no comment because the case is still pending.

Goetz took a voluntary "leave of absence" from his classes in 2016, after his female accuser filed a formal complaint with the university under Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting sexual discrimination, harassment and violence in public colleges and universities. But because he never withdrew his enrollment from the university, Goetz was expelled by the University Conduct Board for violating the Student Code of Conduct, according to court documents.

The decision left a black mark on Goetz's academic transcript that has made it impossible for him to enroll in another university, O'Brien said. The global business major had good grades and dreamed of attending law school, his lawyer said.

"But those dreams went up in flames once those allegations were filed in a process we believe was never fair from the start," O'Brien said."When I called him today to notify him of the court's ruling he cried on the phone, out of happiness for the very first time in a long time."

The ruling comes as the issue of sexual harassment on college campuses has sparked national debate, both as a result of the #MeToo movement and on the heels of a recent proposal by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to overhaul the way colleges and universities handle sexual misconduct complaints.

DeVos' plan would add protections for students accused of assault and harassment and narrow which cases schools would be required to investigate. Overall, it would scale back important Obama administration rules while adding mandates that could reshape the school disciplinary systems that schools have developed over the past decade.

Colleges would have to investigate complaints only if the alleged incident occurred on campus or in other areas overseen by the school, and only if it was reported to certain officials. By contrast, current rules require colleges to review all student complaints, regardless of their location or how they came to the school's attention.

The proposal adds several provisions supported by groups that represent students accused of sexual misconduct. Chief among them, it says accused students must be able to cross-examine their accusers, although it would be done through a representative to avoid personal confrontations.

Those who favor DeVos' proposal say it would bring fairness back to a process that was too heavily skewed in favor of accusers. Critics say it would allow schools to sweep sexual harassment cases under the rug.

This report includes information from the Associated Press. Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 546-6611. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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