While you may not be familiar with Nikki Yovino’s name here in the UK, you might recognise her story. In August 2018 she was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading guilty to making false rape claims against two athletes at her university in Connecticut.
Between persistent news broadcasts both here and in the United States and a storm of social media responses, the story flooded public consciousness and carried even more significant weight amid ongoing conversations around the progress of the #MeToo movement. There was understandable outrage rumbling online. Yovino, a white woman, accused two black men of the assault, which added another layer of frustration and contentiousness to an already riling case. The two men reportedly ended up withdrawing from the university in the lead-up to the trial. But according to a new documentary, there’s another side to the story that was missed from the case's extensive media coverage.
Channel 4's Sex On Trial is a three-part series that "explores the shocking stories behind high-profile student sexual assault cases". Yovino's case is the first to be re-examined for the programme, which asks really difficult questions about the way that sexual assault is investigated and society's approach to believing women.
Yovino enrolled at Sacred Heart University in September 2016. Four weeks later, she was invited to a house party hosted by the college football team. It’s here that she claimed to have been led into a bathroom and raped by the two football players. But over seven weeks of investigation, detectives found what they believed to be holes in her initial statement. In the documentary we hear from Walberto Cotto, a detective at the Bridgeport Police Department who was working on Yovino’s case. He talks through the interview process and describes discovering social media conversations between Yovino and one of the accused. He explains that the more he asked Yovino about what happened at the party, the more her responses would change.
This is contested by Professor Lisa Avalos, who specialises in women’s rights and sexual violence. Criticism of the police methods used is widespread in the documentary. There's the fact that Detective Cotto failed to interview either of the two men accused but made a two-hour drive to Long Island to re-interview Yovino at her home (a practice that Avalos says is unusual in these instances); and the understanding that in the second interview, Yovino was pressed with detailed, leading questions about what happened on that night almost two months earlier.
Cotto claimed to have video evidence of what happened at the party. He told Yovino that he had footage of her and that someone had overheard her conversation with the two men before the incident happened. He suggested that she had been speaking "sexually" before the alleged assault. He told her that she wasn’t dragged into the bathroom as she had initially claimed but went willingly. He insinuated that she had a crush on someone else and created the rape narrative to cover up what had happened. Cotto repeated questions until Yovino gave different answers which, though Cotto maintains was completely within his right to do as a police officer, Professor Avalos and Yovino’s defence lawyer Ryan O'Neill believe backed Yovino into a corner where she felt she had no choice but to concede to the narrative with which the detective was presenting her.
"People have very fragmented memories after sexual assault," explains Professor Avalos. "So the victim isn’t going to remember the sequence of who walked into the bathroom first, especially her being interviewed six weeks later. So why's he even asking this question?"
On the interview recording, you hear Cotto ask whether Yovino was forced into the sexual encounter with the two football players, to which she says she felt "uncomfortable". Cotto and an accompanying detective rationalise that discomfort doesn't constitute rape or assault and from there, in their minds, the case is closed. "Women, if you are in a situation where you are uncomfortable having sex with a man, according to Detective Cotto, you should just go forward with it because being uncomfortable is not enough," O'Neill surmises, clearly frustrated by the troubling message this perspective sends to female victims.
Jim Clark, founder of the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut, was a state court prosecutor for 27 years. He revealed that lawyers at the centre are familiar with Cotto's approach to cases such as Yovino's and that "from experience, the criminal justice system is often not very victim friendly." Watching this documentary explore this side to a case that happened just a couple of years ago, and when the sentence has already been served, is more difficult in light of reports that rape victims in the UK will be forced to hand their phones over to police or risk prosecutions not going ahead – a practice that charities are concerned will prevent victims from coming forward. It's an upsetting narrative that, despite being somewhat inconclusive at this stage, hopefully offers a broader view of a student sexual assault case that, in the general sense, is happening far too frequently.
Sex On Trial starts on Channel 4 on Monday 6th May at 10pm.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.