Gone Girl In The Real World: How False Domestic Violence Claims Cause Permanent Damage To The Innocent
Dante Cunningham. Simon Boswell. Martin Chitwood. These are the names of three men who were falsely accused of committing acts of domestic violence, leaving them to suffer life-long consequences stemming from ruined credibility and reputations. Character assassination is a deliberate process aimed at doing exactly that: permanently ruining a person’s reputation. Tactics such as fostering rumors, manipulating information, and raising false accusations that specifically target a person’s morals and integrity all have the power to bring even the stoutest reputation to a crumbling demise.
When a War of Words Goes Public
More often than not, especially when high-profile individuals are involved, once allegations of abuse of any kind are released to the public, they spread like wildfire. Word of mouth is a powerful vehicle; in addition, once media outlets get wind of a “good story” they take off to spread “the news” to anyone and everyone who will pay attention, sometimes with little to no regard for the truth. Lamentably, the media usually doesn’t consider the mental health of the accuser or the motivations of the accuser’s attorney.
Unfortunately, character attacks and character assassination are a growing problem, but it is not a new problem. In fact, in 2011, scholars from various countries gathered in Germany to establish a group to study character assassination throughout history, the International Society for the Study of Character Assassination (ISSCA). From Luther being defamed by the Catholic Church to the slandering of Emperor Justinian to the live televising of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s inquisition by a Senate Committee—time has seen its share of character attacks and the lifelong damage to reputation that follows.
Three Men, Three Reputations on the Line
Dante Cunningham was a star in the NBA, playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. One night in April of 2014, his girlfriend went public with accusations of domestic violence. He pulled into the driveway of his home shortly after she made the allegations and was met by police officers, who cuffed him immediately and took him away. His girlfriend easily obtained a restraining order, and Cunningham was released from jail pending trial. Three days later, he was arrested again on false allegations from his girlfriend stating he violated that order.
Cunningham was quickly branded with the label of being a domestic violence offender despite the lack of any evidence at all. Previously loved by NBA fans, he now was booed at games. His contract with the Timberwolves was never renewed, and no team would sign him – even though four months later the county dropped all charges, citing a lack of any reasonable proof that he was guilty. What authorities did find, though, was proof that the girlfriend framed Cunningham and fabricated the charges – but the damage to his reputation and career was done.
Simon Boswell is a BAFTA-nominated British film score composer, conductor, producer and musician, with more than 90 film titles to his name. On December 13, 2011, Boswell was found not guilty of domestic abuse by the Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court in London. His saga began in January of the same year, when his partner and mother of his young son called the police and falsely claimed that she was being assaulted by Boswell, a claim she retracted when the police arrived. Boswell was nevertheless arrested and later released without charges being filed. However, his partner subsequently called the police on several additional occasions, and she also visited her doctor and claimed that Boswell had assaulted her. Following the report to her doctor, Boswell was arrested again and charged with a single count of common assault, and his case was set for trial.
While waiting for the trial that would take place seven months later, Boswell was not permitted to enter his own home because his partner obtained a restraining order against him. This made it almost impossible for him to see his son, with whom he is very close, causing significant distress for both of them, with Boswell suffering severe health consequences. Additionally, Social Services was notified of the charges and investigated the welfare of the child, meaning that Boswell faced the real possibility of losing his son altogether. Fortunately, Boswell was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the court, and along with the not guilty verdict, Boswell was awarded all costs.
Quite recently, on August 31, 2017, a 12-person jury determined that Martin Chitwood, a prominent Atlanta attorney, had not committed any of the many acts of domestic violence1 alleged by his now ex-wife. Specifically, the jury had the opportunity to check off 56 different boxes representing the many charges in this particular case, but did not check off a single one, coming back with a 100% defense verdict.
In August of 2014, Chitwood left his vacation home in La Jolla, California for lunch nearby; when he returned, the police were in his driveway to arrest him on charges of abuse made by his then wife. He was handcuffed and booked into the police station, then to a jail cell in San Diego. The next morning Chitwood posted bond and immediately went to cancel credit cards, change passwords to accounts, and deal with inexplicable changes to his bank accounts. He also filed for divorce from his wife, Carol. She answered by admitting his claim of irreconcilable differences without making any counterclaim at the time.
However, it wasn’t long before Carol hired Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom, an attorney known for making sensational claims and publicizing them through the media, and shortly thereafter Carol began making claims of domestic abuse that grew in number, severity, and specificity as the case progressed. Carol Chitwood used the allegations to challenge the validity of the couple’s prenuptial agreement. Bloom promoted the case to the media in order to publicize it, knowing full well that a lawsuit alleging such sensational claims would likely take a few years to resolve – providing more than enough time to destroy Martin Chitwood’s reputation and his career as an attorney if he didn’t settle the false claims first.
When the prenuptial agreement was enforced by the court, Bloom filed a civil case against Martin in San Diego, and the proceedings took a turn that was reminiscent of the plot in the movie, Gone Girl. Bloom implored the City Attorney and District Attorney to arrest Chitwood but both requests were declined, due to their belief that they could not carry their burden of proof. As the case unfolded, evidence became clear of instances of fictitious happenings and stories (claims of abuse taking place at times when there was proof the Chitwoods were not even together, verbal accounts that kept changing, and sudden new “memories” of abusive events when previously none could be recounted), and so the jury ultimately cleared Martin Chitwood on all counts – but not before personal, social, and professional damage had been dealt. Before the case reached the jury and Martin could be cleared, Bloom had cooperated with The Daily Report, a weekday tabloid published in Atlanta where Martin had lived and worked, to publicize the fictitious allegations.
Martin Chitwood was unable to spend a night in his beloved home for more than nine months after his arrest; he suffered with no access to his own possessions there during that time. Many treasured items he would never get back – he permanently lost his military and medical records, all his photographs (including the only photos of his parents), and most of his memorabilia. He also had to leave behind his two white golden retrievers, who were his best friends. Ultimately, the court would order his ex-wife to return his dogs to him.
This case is seminal because it highlights the fact that even when a defendant is cleared of wrongdoing by a jury, the allegations still harm his or her reputation, career, home life, and social standing – and the damage is most often permanent, sometimes lasting well beyond the accused’s natural lifetime. When false claims of abuse are presented, character assassination premised on those false accusations can never be repealed, forgotten, erased, or made right. The public is known for deciding what is and is not its business, and unfortunately, the press ensures that any allegations at all, whether they are true or not, are fed straight to the public.
The Role of The Press
All of this may beg the question, “What would media such as The Daily Report have to gain by running stories of cases such as these, ruining the reputations of the accused?” The simple answer is to increase circulation. Known as yellow journalism, it involves using sensationalized news to attract more readers. The Handbook of Journalism and Mass Communication2 defines this type of journalism as degrading, in which facts are distorted or exaggerated with “very little truth in the stories. Unethical means are adopted to increase circulation. It is a kind of journalism which lures the readers by any possible means” and it is responsible for a significant role in character assassination.
In each of these three cases, although the charges of domestic abuse were false, the accusations nevertheless irretrievably damaged the personal life, professional life, and financial status of the accused. Sadly, the losses caused by fictitious domestic violence claims can never fully be reclaimed by the vindicated.
2 Vir Bala Aggarwal & V. S. Gupta, Handbook of Journalism and Mass Communication, 169 (Concept Publishing Company 2001).
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