PROSECUTION OF FALSE ALLEGATIONS

by Park Dietz, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.

Sadly, news reports regarding talented actor and singer Jussie Smollett have again thrust the topic of false allegations into public consciousness. False allegations are a regular, if uncommon, occurrence in educational institutions, workplaces, civil litigation, and the criminal justice system. Few make headlines, and when they do, they are often euphemistically described as “hoaxes,” which minimizes the risks and harms to the innocent that often result and the expenses and diversion of investigative resources they create.

Many will remember the case of Tawana Brawley, whose spokesman Al Sharpton falsely accused white criminal justice professionals of having harmed Ms. Brawley, whose degradations were self-inflicted. I testified before the Grand Jury investigating the case, describing the known indicators of false allegations, though Sharpton declined for me to examine Ms. Brawley, telling the press that he’d let her submit to my examination when the Governor submitted to an examination by his psychiatrist. While one of those falsely accused would later obtain a substantial civil judgment, it remains uncollected.

Another case with widespread publicity on which I worked was that of Susan Smith, who falsely claimed that two African-American men had carjacked her vehicle with her children inside. Although initially believed by law enforcement, her story eventually unraveled, and she was convicted of killing her children.

But most of the false allegations we’ve worked on at TAG never come to the attention of the public, and may not even have been reported to law enforcement, as they occur in the context of internal corporate investigations or Title IX investigations in educational institutions. Examples of the kinds of cases that arise in a corporate context include:

  • Symbols such as swastikas, KKK symbolism, nooses, or extremist phrases appearing in graffiti or other anonymous communications

  • False claims of vandalism, harassment, threats, burglary, or assault by individuals overwhelmed by job or life responsibilities

  • Malicious false allegations designed to harm perceived enemies

  • Psychotic false allegations, often among those with persecutory delusions who report that others are whispering about them, plotting against them, sabotaging them, or stalking them

Be aware that certain features of complaints and of threatening communications are highly suggestive of a false allegation, and the techniques for successfully interviewing the accuser are unique to this phenomenon, so you should seek expert consultation whenever you suspect that a serious allegation is false or that someone may have sent themselves a threatening communication.

If a false allegation is reported to law enforcement, there is a potential for criminal prosecution. Although news reports of Jussie Smollett’s reported hate crime victimization suggest the allegation was false, it would be premature to pass judgment on what occurred without access to the full investigation. If found to have fabricated and/or orchestrated the attack, he could be prosecuted for making a false police report, as has occurred in other cases, both in the U.S. and abroad, such as these:

  • Former alderwoman Dar Heatherington of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, was convicted of public mischief for sending anonymous threatening letters to herself and falsely claiming to have been abducted, sexually assaulted, and abandoned in Las Vegas (1).

  • 20-year-old college student Audrey Seiler claimed to have been abducted at knifepoint on 3/27/04 in Wisconsin, but police discounted her claim as being fabricated, partially due to inconsistencies in her statements, and she was charged in faking her own disappearance. In February 2004, she had claimed that she was assaulted and left unconscious on the street by an unknown assailant (2). She pleaded guilty to two counts of obstructing police by lying and was placed on three years’ probation, during which she agreed to pay $250 per month restitution (3).

  • 23-year-old Marie-Leonie Leblanc walked into her local police station and described an attack on a train by six youths of Arab origin who slashed her clothes, cut off locks of her hair, knocked over her baby's pushchair, and scrawled swastikas on her stomach with a marker pen. None of her fellow passengers moved a muscle to help. The incident rocked France and led Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to urge French Jews to flee to Israel to escape “the wildest anti-semitism.” Four days later, she retracted her statement, saying she had inflicted the wounds on herself. She told investigators she made up the attack so her boyfriend would spend the day with her. The public prosecutor told the court that on six occasions between 1999 and 2002, Leblanc had filed formal complaints about assaults that had never been investigated because they could not be substantiated. “I wanted people to pay attention to me,” Leblanc told the court at Cergy-Pontoise outside Paris. In 2004, she was given a four-month suspended prison sentence, two years’ probation, and ordered to seek therapy. “She's always told stories, since she was very small,” her older brother, Jean-Baptiste, told French radio. “She told me so many I that stopped listening.” Her mother, Genevieve, said Marie-Leonie had “told a lot of lies” as a girl, “not in a wicked way, but to grab attention, like many kids” (4).

  • Jennifer Wilbanks, known as the “Runaway Bride,” mysteriously disappeared just prior to her wedding in April 2005. After a massive four-day manhunt, Wilbanks called police from a payphone in Albuquerque, New Mexico, alleging she had been abducted from Atlanta and sexually assaulted. She later recanted during police questioning and was charged with making a false statement and making a false police report (5). She pleaded no contest to the charges and received probation, community service, and fines for the upheaval she caused (6).

  • In 2007, former MIT professor John J. Donovan, Sr., reported to police that he was shot by two masked men with Russian accents, and saved only because two of the bullets bounced off his belt buckle. He was eventually charged with filing a false police report, having staged his own shooting to gain an advantage in a legal battle with his own children for control of trusts that he claimed were worth at least $180 million. He falsely accused his oldest son of hiring his would-be killers (7).

  • In 2009, 55-year-old Charlene K. Cherry reported being carjacked, shot, and robbed of $6,000. In fact, she shot herself in the chest and fabricated the story about a carjacking and robbery according to law enforcement. She was charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct (8).

  • 21-year-old Sharmeka Moffitt called police 10/21/12 and said she was doused in flammable liquid while walking in a park by three men in white hoodies. Police found “KKK” written in toothpaste on the hood of Moffitt's car, and Moffiitt suffered burns to the majority of her body and was treated for several weeks at a Regional Burn Center. Two days later, police revealed that their investigation had linked Moffitt's fingerprints to a lighter and a bottle of lighter fluid found at the scene. The District Attorney filed charges against Moffitt on 3/18/13, and she was arrested and booked on charges of terrorizing and false reporting (9).

  • 46-year-old Kimberly Baldwin, while facing charges for wire fraud conspiracy, told her husband, a DEA special agent, that people in a gold Buick sedan had watched their house and menaced her. She presented the DEA with two threat notes, one of which was written on a dollar bill, to support her story that someone was harassing her family. The DEA and other law enforcement agencies spent $10,600 to guard her house. In sentencing her, the Judge said, “We can’t have people making false statements and pulling law enforcement away from the very important duties they have.” In 2013, Baldwin was sentenced to serve 13 months for making false statements to the government. She was ordered to reimburse the DEA $10,600 (10).

As is clear from the above examples, the contexts, accusations, and motivations for false allegations are variable. Any sort of crime or misconduct may be alleged, and the motivations often include a misguided effort to solve a personal problem without concern for the harms inflicted on others. Those false allegations that seek to play on racial, ethnic, gender, or political hatred may well be the most destructive to social cohesion and have the greatest potential to foster intolerance.


(1) Regina v. Heatherington (2004), ABPC 116, 2004; Regina v. Heatherington, ABPC 191, 2004

(2) CNN, 7/1/04

(3) http://host.madison.com/news/local/audrey-seiler-working-to-pay-back-the-city/article_ea1a5e0f-0083-50b0-9ce7-9ee26e8ec237.html

(4) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jul/27/france.jonhenley

(5) CNN, 5/26/05; Yee D: Ga. woman charged for lies to police: DA indicts runaway bride over phony story. Washington Post 5/26/05, p. A03

(6) Associated Press, 6/22/05

(7) http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/law/08/01/millionaire.shot.ap/index.html

(8) http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/emaf.nsf/Popup?ReadForm&db= stltoday%5Cnews%5Cstories.nsf&docid=A93AFB8AEE72529286257584005FA6A0

(9) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/police-woman-lied-set-fire-article-1.1190864#ixzz2AFM4G8CI; http://www.ksla.com/story/ 21867692/sharmeka-moffitt-arrested-on-terrorism-charge

(10) http://www.post-gazette.com/local/south/2013/10/31/Former-appraiser-wife-of-DEA-agent-sentenced-to-19-months-in-prison.print

Aaron Cohen