Jury finds Baylor not responsible for alleged sexual assault by ex-football players

A jury in Houston took just a few hours on Wednesday to find Baylor University and three former football players not responsible for the alleged sexual assault of a former female student athlete in 2017.

The trial, which started May 20, was in some ways a test of whether Baylor had changed its ways since a pattern of mishandled sexual assaults, notably those involving football players, led to the firing of head football coach Art Briles and the eventual departures of president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw in 2016.

The former equestrian athlete who filed the lawsuit in March 2019 reported having been assaulted at her residence hall room in November 2017, more than a year after the school had pledged to revamp how it works to prevent and respond to reports of sexual assault. ESPN is not naming her because she went by a pseudonym in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which was filed in a district court in Harris County, Texas, claimed that the University Parks residence hall that housed athletes, including football players, was a "hot spot" for sexual assault. It alleged Baylor was negligent and guilty of fraud because it put students -- specifically the young woman -- at risk by housing them there and not warning them of the potential for being assaulted.

Baylor Title IX investigators had previously found three football players -- John Arthur, Tre'von Lewis, and Justin Harris -- responsible for violating the school's sexual misconduct policies, and they were expelled. Arthur and Lewis were accused of having sexually assaulted the woman, and Harris was accused of videotaping and sharing videos of the woman on social media without her consent.

The results of an investigation by Baylor police were sent to a McLennan County grand jury, which also had a copy of the school's Title IX report. In June 2018 jurors declined to criminally indict Arthur and Lewis.

The jury instructions also named a fourth football player, Dru Dixon, but he was not a respondent in the Title IX case or a named defendant in the lawsuit. The jurors on Wednesday were asked to decide whether Dixon, Arthur and Lewis had sexually assaulted the woman and answered no to all three.

During the trial, attorneys from Baylor argued that the standard of evidence for finding the men responsible for sexual assault in a Title IX investigation was lower than that required to find them responsible in the civil trial.

Baylor attorney Thomas Brown said in closing arguments Wednesday that what happened to the woman was an "unfortunate" and "regrettable sexual encounter," but it was not rape. He pointed to messages the woman exchanged with a friend after the alleged assault in which she wrote, "I can't believe I let this happen."

But the woman's attorneys accused Baylor of contradicting itself after its Title IX investigators determined she had been incapacitated and unable to give consent.

A statement from Baylor emailed to ESPN noted that the verdict "recognized Baylor is not the same institution as it was three, four and even five years ago, when the university took several unprecedented actions, including leadership changes and the broad implementation of 105 campus-wide recommendations regarding its response to past incidents of sexual and interpersonal violence within the campus community."

"These extensive changes -- successfully implemented campus-wide before the alleged incident in this case occurred in late 2017 -- focused on training and education for all students, faculty and staff to improve awareness and prevention of sexual and interpersonal violence and to respond appropriately when such events do occur..."

Worth Carroll, an attorney for the woman, said in a statement, "We are disappointed in the verdict, but thankful to the Court for its time and attention to this important issue -- and most importantly -- proud of our client for her strength and courage."

In his closing arguments, David Gonzalez, an attorney for the woman, told jurors that 27% of the rapes at Baylor's residence halls from 2013 through 2016 occurred at University Parks, including four within a span of 40 days in 2017. Those four included the one the woman reported involving the football players.

"Did the culture change with a new football coach? Did the culture change because the president was reassigned? We know the culture existed throughout the university," he said. "Baylor did not do what it needed to do to change the culture."

He also pointed to testimony from a video deposition of Baylor Police Sgt. Molly Davis, who said she told the football players during interviews that she wanted to "keep it quiet" and did not want to "take down the football team."

But Baylor attorneys said the school took extensive steps in training, education and awareness for students, faculty and staff. Attorney Julie Springer said Baylor had "become the gold standard" when it comes to Title IX institutional structures and protocols, and a closer examination of the sexual assault reports at University Parks did not prompt officials to determine it was unsafe. Baylor attorney Brown said that there were "zero reports" at the complex in the two years before the woman arrived on campus.