A career in the entertainment industry didn't make me an expert on the legal system, but being falsely accused of teen molestation came close. A sex abuse suit was filed against me a year ago, and my journey to exoneration -- the accuser's lawyers paid a seven figure settlement and admitted last month that their client's claims were "untrue and provably false" -- has convinced me that serious reforms are needed in the way courts handle these cases.
From the start, the allegations -- that I had drugged and raped a then-seventeen year-old named Michael Egan in Hawaii in 1999 -- were absurd: I wasn't in Hawaii 15 years ago and could prove it. In fact, neither was Egan. And although I do business with steely resolve, in my personal life I'm mild mannered and perhaps even boring.
But none of that mattered. Egan's cases against me and three others were announced at white hot press conferences bristling with television cameras and mostly uncritical reporters who watched Egan's mother erupt in tears and vow to "disarm the predators." Fueled by homophobia, the salacious lawsuits ignited a firestorm at the toxic intersection of a ponderous legal system and a click-bait inflected media culture.
Splashed across home pages and the evening news, the allegations went viral, evoking countless blog comments about the "faggots" who'd supposedly done these terrible things. Egan's unsupported claims were accepted as self-evident, while our denials were often discounted, downplayed or even twisted to fan the hysteria: "TV Exec Garth Ancier: I Didn't Rape That Kid" was one of TMZ.com's backhanded headlines. Other outlets ran stories without bothering to contact me or the other defendants.
In an instant, my sterling reputation -- built up over a forty year career in broadcasting that started at age 16 -- was vaporized. I was now unemployable, and advised to accept that I would never work as a media executive again. The personal impact too was devastating, and my health suffered as well.
The stale, wasteful and baseless case against me was only possible because Hawaii eliminated its statute of limitations on teen sex abuse. I abhor sexual misconduct and have tremendous sympathy for victims and their families. But statutes of limitation exist for a reason: memories fade over time, witnesses die, rumors spread, documents are discarded and physical evidence decays or disappears. Recognizing the sensitive nature of these cases, many states have lengthened their statutes -- but eliminating time limits altogether is unwise and can put defendants in an impossible position. Could you prove you weren't in Hawaii in August 1999? Probably not.
Mere weeks after Egan filed his lawsuits, his cases began to crumble in the face of his own prior sworn deposition statements that he'd never been to Hawaii and not been molested by anyone other than three other individuals whom he sued in 2000. Egan's primary 2014 attorney, Jeff Herman, either didn't bother to read the deposition or didn't care, and he himself had previously been suspended by the Florida Bar for dishonesty and banned for life from a federal court for a "credibility problem." But he was still able to use the media to troll for clients, and even had a list of Hollywood gay men he was targeting for accusations.
That tells us other reforms are needed as well.
First, attorneys in sexual misconduct cases should be required to contact the accused or his lawyers before filing suit and exchanging evidence.
Second, all states should adopt the California requirement that defendants in sexual abuse cases be granted anonymity until and unless a judge finds merit in the case,
Third, judges should develop an expedited procedure for determining this promptly. Press conferences and news releases should be prohibited.
Egan's lawsuits were finally withdrawn, but that simply left the matter in limbo. To achieve vindication -- and regain my standing in the business community -- I had to counter-sue for malicious prosecution, a lengthy, expensive and arduous process that has seen Egan scolded by the judge for lying in court and, separately, plead guilty in connection with unrelated federal fraud charges. We also learned Egan had bragged about falsely targeting Hollywood gay men. And although his former lawyers settled, Egan has not, and my case against him continues.
There has to be a better road to accountability. Lawyers who file these cases -- particularly if on contingency -- should be required to carry hefty malpractice insurance to ensure they can be held accountable for frivolous claims. Plaintiffs' attorneys in meritless cases should be required to pay defendants' legal fees. And lying in civil suits should bring criminal indictments for perjury, which today are scarce as hen's teeth.
This isn't just about the civil system though. Rolling Stone's 2014 story of a gang rape at UVA inflamed debate -- until the police determined the article had "no substantive basis" and the publisher retracted it as flawed. That incident echoed the 2006 rape allegations against Duke lacrosse players, which ended with all charges dropped and the DA jailed and disbarred. We all need to do more to slow the headlong rush to judgment in sex abuse cases and remember always that allegations aren't proof.
A year ago, evil landed on my shoulder and dug in its claws. As my nightmare ends, I'm finally free of its grip, but the scars on my psyche and good name will remain for the rest of my life. Perhaps with well-chosen reforms, it won't have to happen to anyone else.
Garth Ancier currently works as a media consultant for OTT services, as well as linear broadcast/pay television networks.
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