On Saturday, Dec. 9, 2006, Hannah* woke up in her Howard University dorm room with a piece of her life missing. Hannah, a 19-year-old sophomore, had unexplained pain in her rectum and hip. Her panty liner, which she had worn the night before, was missing. Vomit dotted her gloves and coat. Her friend Kerston lay beside her in the skinny dorm room bed. Kerston told Hannah not to shower—they had to go back to the hospital to secure a rape kit. That weekend, Hannah claims that she was provided the following excuses for why she could not receive a sexual assault medical forensic examination: She was drunk; she ate a sandwich; she was a liar; she didn’t know her attacker’s last name; the police had to authorize the exam; she was outside the hospital’s jurisdiction; she wasn’t reporting a real crime; she was blacked out; she changed her story; her case was already closed.
This is the story of the night Hannah was not officially raped. And so far, Hannah has not officially accused anyone of raping her. In the summer of 2007, she filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, Howard University Hospital, George Washington University Hospital, both universities, and several doctors she says denied or interfered with her medical care. She seeks damages for medical malpractice and negligence from the medical defendants and the D.C. police, which she says resulted in “the probable loss of the opportunity to see her assailant brought to justice.” Across the board, the defendants denied Hannah’s claims. The parties in the case, which has yet to go to trial, were not interviewed for this story; this account is reconstructed from sworn deposition testimony taken in Hannah’s suit.
It was a Friday night in the middle of finals, the end of the first semester of sophomore year. Some Howard guys who lived in an off-campus house on Bryant Street were throwing an off-campus birthday party for Daniel, a friend of Hannah’s. She convinced a couple of friends to come with her. They pre-gamed in Hannah’s friend Sade’s room, sipped on cups of Malibu mixed with fruit punch, and then walked the half-mile to the house.
There, Hannah, Sade, and Kerston engaged in normal college party activities—they filled their cups with red spiked punch from the Gatorade containers in the kitchen, danced in the darkened living room, and chatted on the couch in the middle of the house. Amanda, another friend from school, arrived later and joined the group. They all obeyed the Howard boys’ house rule: Nobody goes upstairs.
Enforcing the directive was Tito, a big, muscular guy who grew up in the shadow of the university. Hannah had seen Tito around campus before. They met through her older sister, a bank employee and Howard grad six years her senior. Tito testified that he met Hannah’s sister when she sprained her ankle playing tennis and took an ambulance to the hospital. Tito, the EMT who responded to the scene, managed to secure her number on the ride, and they went out a few times. When Hannah started school at Howard, Tito introduced himself to her, gave her a ride home from the movies once, and hit on some of her friends. Tito had worked security at area nightclubs when he wasn’t on duty, and he sometimes volunteered his services to Howard house parties. At the Bryant Street party, he stood inside the door, screened kids for drugs and knives, and stopped anyone who tried to mount the stairs.
As reinforcement for Tito, the housemates had erected a furniture barricade at the foot of stairs—a few chairs stacked together to prevent partygoers from sneaking up to the second floor. Brandon, one of the Howard boys hosting the party, told partygoers that he had blocked off the stairs because the bathroom wasn’t working. Actually, the toilet was fine—Brandon was so fastidious about protecting his stuff that he blocked off the house’s only toilet. Guests were forced to pee at another party across the street, or in the alley behind the house.
A couple of hours of partying later, the music started to slow down, the lights turned on, and the girls decided it was time to go. By then, it was early morning. In a deposition, Hannah testified that she was dancing with Bilal, a Howard student who lived with Brandon in the house. When Hannah woke up the next day, this is the last thing she would remember: “He was getting a little rough, and I remember trying to kind of just get away from him,” she recalled in the deposition. “I remember I tried to stop dancing with him.…[There was] a little too much of sexual suggestion.…just touching me too much.” She started to feel blurry, woozy, dizzy, “and then nothing.”
As the party wound down, Kerston, Sade, and Amanda briefly left the room to retrieve the crew’s coats. When they returned to the living room, the girls testified that Hannah and Bilal were gone. They called her cell phone. She didn’t pick up. They looked for her around the first floor of the house, on the stoop, in the back alley. She wasn’t there. They asked other students at the party if they had seen her. They hadn’t. They start calling her name. No response. After looking for her for several minutes, there was only one place she could be.
“So I go to the steps,” Sade testified in a deposition. “I move [the barricade],” she said. “I’m walking up the steps, and Tito like just comes behind me. He grabs my arm…and he literally like brings me back down the steps.…And I’m like get off me, what are you talking about?” The three girls gathered around Tito and told them they were just looking for their friend; Tito explained that he’d been hired to keep people from reaching the second floor. At first, the girls had suspected that Hannah had just gone upstairs to use the restroom, but after a few minutes of arguing with Tito, they grew more concerned. “So at this point like I’m mad,” Sade testified. “At this point we’re yelling. I don’t know what I’m saying exactly, but I’m yelling.” The girls began screaming Hannah’s name up the stairs, hoping she’d hear them and come down. She didn’t.
After five minutes of yelling, the girls insisted that Tito go up the stairs to look for her himself. Tito testified that he climbed the stairs, saw an empty bathroom and some locked bedroom doors—but no Hannah—and reoccupied his post at the foot of the stairs. When he returned, “he was sweating,” Kerston testified. “I remember him taking off his hat and rubbing, like wiping his forehead and he was just like shaking his head.…Just sitting there, sweating.” In her deposition, Sade testified, “Tito looked nervous, like he knew that something was going on that shouldn’t have been going on,” she said. “I know Tito knew her before this, so maybe his conscience was getting to him or something.…Why are you acting this funny about a bathroom?”
The girls started screaming again. “At this point I know she could hear us, if she was in the bathroom,” Kerston testified. “So she would have came down the stairs by now. We were yelling her name, we were yelling at him to bring her down, I mean she would’ve—she would’ve came downstairs by now.” Then, Brandon came running down the stairs swearing at them to leave his house. “He came past Tito and he was like in our, like close to our faces, yelling at us,” Kerston testified. “He was telling us to get out of his house, and we were like, ‘No, we’re not leaving without our friend,’ so we didn’t leave.” In a deposition taken two years later, Brandon testified that he couldn’t recall the specifics of the interaction.
According to the testimony of the three girls, Tito then changed his story. “He said, ‘Oh, she’s coming,’” Amanda said. “Well, first he told me she wasn’t up there. I knew he was lying.” Testified Sade, “They were acting way too nervous, and they really wanted to get us out, like they were very persistent about getting us out of there, and there’s no reason for that if everything is fine and my friend is just using the bathroom,” she said. “It doesn’t take that long to use the restroom.”
Finally, Hannah appeared at the top of the staircase. “She looked drunk, like her eyes were closed,” Amanda testified. “She couldn’t really walk. She was trying to hold her balance down the steps. She was walking slow.” The girls, Tito, and Brandon watched her descend the stairs. “She looked very unaware of what was going on. She just looked out of it,” Sade said. “She was fixing herself, but she wasn’t fixed when she got done, you know?…She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing.”
The girls took Hannah by the arms, helped her into her coat, and led her slumped figure out of the house. The girls testified that Hannah had consumed a limited amount of alcohol at the party, and they couldn’t figure out why she seemed so drunk. “I’m just like what’s wrong, like what’s wrong with you,” Sade testified. “She just sort of mumbled, ‘ah, ah, ah, ah.’” The girls got about half a block down the street, grilling her all the way, before Hannah managed to indicate that someone had touched her while she was upstairs. Then she threw up orange-red vomit all over the sidewalk. Sade kept her grip on Hannah; Kerston and Amanda headed back to the house and banged on the boys’ door. Brandon and Bilal were downstairs. “It was a yelling match,” Amanda testified. “Like ‘Where is—what happened to our friend, and what did you all do,’” she said. According to the girls’ testimony, the boys screamed at them to get away. The girls threatened to call the cops, and demanded to know who took Hannah upstairs. “Adam Joseph,” the boys told them, before slamming the door in their faces. The girls later discovered that the two remaining Bryant Street housemates were not at the party that night—one with the first name “Adam” and the other with the last name “Joseph.”
Down the street, Hannah vomited incessantly onto the sidewalk. “She was too out of it to know where she even was,” Sade said. “And she looked sad.” When Kerston and Sade returned, the girls verbalized their suspicions. “I think she’s been raped, Sade,” Kerston said. “We need to go to the hospital.…She might have been like—she might have been drugged.” The girls headed toward the hospital. Hannah threw up again. They stopped a Howard University student shuttle, hopped in, and instructed the driver to take them to the hospital. Hannah threw up while getting into the shuttle. Inside, “she was just leaning to the side,” testified Sade, “she was like awake but not really there.” They exited the shuttle. She threw up again. They entered the Howard University emergency room around 3:30 in the morning. Hannah threw up.
“We think she’s been raped,” Kerston and Sade informed an orderly as they dragged her into the hospital. Hospital officials handed Sade some paperwork to fill out on Hannah’s behalf. In the box indicating the reason for the ER visit, Sade testifies that she wrote, “raped, possibly drugged.” A nurse sat Hannah down and took her blood pressure. Hannah threw up on the floor. Kerston and Sade helped to clean it up off of the ground. The nurse put a vomit bag in Hannah’s hands. She was incoherent and barely conscious. She threw up into the bag. According to the girls’ testimony, when a doctor finally saw Hannah, she determined that she was too incoherent to consent to receive a rape kit, because she couldn’t verbally confirm that she had been raped. According to the girls, the doctor told them to take Hannah home, let her sleep it off, make sure she didn’t shower, and then return to Howard University Hospital for a rape kit the next day. When the girls begged the doctor to treat Hannah’s symptoms of sexual assault and drugging, the girls claim that the doctor told them to leave the ER. (The doctor testified that she informed Hannah’s friends that they would have to wait six to eight hours before Hannah was treated, and that the girls chose to leave the hospital without treatment). When Kerston and Sade took Hannah back to her dorm, she threw up again.