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The woman at the center of the sexual assault case shadowing The Birth of a Nation director-writer-star Nate Parker is dead, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.
While THR won’t reveal her name because she was the victim of an alleged rape, records indicate that a woman whose name, age, physical location and other details that match the accuser’s in the 1999 sexual assault incident at Penn State died on April 15, 2012. She was 30 years old. Publicly available legal documents and numerous news reports and social media postings have shown that the accuser tried repeatedly to commit suicide in the weeks and months following her accusation against Parker and his friend and Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin and her eventual withdrawal from Penn State.
According to an interview with the woman’s brother, who identified himself as Johnny in an interview with Variety, the woman committed suicide and overdosed on sleeping pills. “She became detached from reality,” he told the outlet. “The progression was very quick and she took her life.”
Fox Searchlight, which is releasing Birth of a Nation on Oct. 7, declined to comment.
“She was tormented,” says S. Daniel Carter, who worked as a campus sexual assault advocate for a nonprofit group called Security on Campus at the time of the alleged assault. “It was the constant contact and fear of seeing her assailants on campus. This was long before any real guidance on sexual assault came out.”
The original case stems from an August 1999 incident involving the accuser and two Penn State wrestlers at the time, Parker and Celestin (who has a co-story credit on Birth of a Nation). According to court records, the trio wound up at Parker’s off-campus apartment, where, the accuser later said, she was sexually assaulted while unconscious. The woman waited a few weeks and then reported the assault to local police, according to court records. Parker and Celestin were eventually arrested, charged with sexual assault and the case went to trial.
The case has attracted renewed attention since Birth of a Nation’s breakout success at the Sundance Film Festival and its acquisition by Fox Searchlight for $17 million. The movie, a moving account of the Nat Turner slave uprising, is a serious Oscar contender, and Parker spoke out Friday to the industry blog Deadline about the accusations.
On Tuesday night, Parker released a lengthy statement on Facebook, saying he had only just learned that the woman had ended her life.
“I am filled with profound sorrow,” he wrote. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can’t help but think of all the implications this has for her family.”
He continued, “While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”
The woman’s family also responded on Tuesday in a statement to The New York Times, saying, “We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals. While we cannot protect the victim from this media storm, we can do our best to protect her son. For that reason, we ask for privacy for our family and do not wish to comment further.”
Parker, who admitted that he and the woman had engaged in consensual sex prior to that night, eventually was acquitted. Celestin was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail, but the conviction was later overturned on appeal based on the argument that he had had ineffective representation. A retrial did not go forward because the woman declined to testify. She later agreed to a $17,000 settlement with Penn State.
“We simply will not comment on this or any case with an anonymous complainant,” says Tara Murtha, a spokesperson for the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, which represented the woman in her suit against Parker and Celestin.
According to a briefing filed by the accuser’s attorney, Parker and Celestin began harassing the woman, referred to as Jane Doe in certain court documents, in the days and weeks after she reported the alleged rape to police. “Parker and Celestin began an organized campaign to harass Jane Doe and make her fear for her safety,” wrote her attorneys. “Jane Doe was harassed on campus and was no longer able to eat or socialize in public areas.”
According to this legal brief, Parker showed up outside her dormitory or buildings where she had classes, “hurled sexual epithets” at her when she walked around campus and made harassing phone calls to her room.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 17, 1999, she tried to commit suicide for the first time, according to court documents. Six days later, she tried again. The next month she stopped attending classes and in January she withdrew altogether.
According to her attorney’s legal brief, she returned a couple of months later, only to find that the harassment was continuing. The university “failed to take any steps to address the harassment,” her attorneys wrote. In May, her apartment was broken into and legal filings relating to her case were disturbed.
“Our primary objective was to provide some measure of peace of mind for the survivor,” says Carter, who had not stayed in touch with the woman and was unaware that she had passed away.
Aug. 16, 7:50 p.m. PT: Updated with statements from Parker and the victim’s family.
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