The retreading of a 17-year-old rape case involving director Nate Parker has sent the awards campaign for his critically acclaimed film “The Birth of a Nation” into a tailspin — but what exactly happened nearly two decades ago?
In 1999, Parker and his longtime friend, Jean Celestin, were arrested and tried for the sexual assault of an unnamed woman and fellow classmate at Penn State University, where both men were sophomores and members of the wrestling team.
Parker was acquitted of the charges in 2001, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault (a verdict that was later overturned on appeal and never re-tried in court). But the case is mired with claims of emotional distress by the accuser — who took her own life in 2012 — and charges of intimidation and stalking on campus once she came forward.
Accounts of the woman’s life between the incident and her suicide are grim, with family members claiming she suffered from both post-traumatic stress and drug abuse. Parker, historically vocal about his innocence, said he was “devastated” to learn of her death but refuses to run from his past.
Here’s what we know, per court documents and family accounts, about the case:
The Sexual Assault Accusation
The unnamed woman, an 18-year-old Penn State student, alleged that Parker and Celestin both engaged in nonconsensual sex with her while she was unconscious, according to criminal complaints reviewed by The Daily Beast. The events were said to transpire “on or around” October 1999.
The accuser addressed the incident with her college counselor two and a half weeks after it allegedly occurred, according to a civil complaint obtained by TheWrap, which was filed after criminal charges. The counselor advised the woman to call the police and see a doctor.
A trial would not be held for two years. In November 1999, the accuser made one of two attempts on her life, according to the Daily Beast.
Both Parker and Celestin, who were then 19, said at the time the sex was consensual, and Parker has restated this position in interviews throughout the years, and again on Tuesday by calling the encounter “unambiguously consensual.”
Parker and Celestin charged with “rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault and indecent assault,” according to The Daily Collegian, an independent publication run by Penn State students.
Still, Parker acknowledged in his Tuesday Facebook post, “While I maintain my innocence … 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.”
“I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom,” he added.
A trial would not be held until 2001.
Claims of Harassment on Campus
According to the civil complaint the accuser filed in 2002 against Penn State with the help of Philadelphia-based firm Women’s Law Project, the alleged assault itself was only the start of the emotional trauma she suffered.
The filing claims that the November 1999 attempt on her life was the result of a harassment campaign undertaken Parker and Celestin, whom she alleged had hired a private investigator who circulated photos around campus revealing her identity.
“Parker and Celestin hired a private investigator who showed an enlarged photograph of Jane Doe to students on campus, including to Jane Doe’s acquaintances and friends, and sought information about Jane Doe,” the civil filing said.
“The private investigator’s actions disclosed to parts of the campus community the identity of Jane Doe, whose rape had been publicized but whose name had, until then, been kept confidential.”
The woman claimed that she felt unsafe to eat or socialize in
Penn State sent notice to all three involved in the case warning them not to engage in any contact at the consequence of disciplinary actions from the university, but the accuser’s filing claimed that Parker and Celestin persisted.
The document reads:
Parker, Celestin, and their friends constantly hurled sexual epithets at Jane Doe while shadowing her as she moved throughout campus and frequently made harassing phone calls to Jane Doe’s dorm room. The harassment and intimidation made Jane Doe fear for her general safety on campus.
“As a result of the harassment, Jane Doe suffered severe depression, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks. She was unable to attend classes or even leave her room,” the civil filing said.
The college settled the suit in December 2002 for $17,500.
The Criminal Trial
Parker was acquitted of all charges in a 2001 criminal trial that some outlets described as “swift.”
Celestin, who is listed as a story contributor on the “Birth of a Nation” screenplay, was convicted sexual assault and sentenced to six months of jail time. He appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial. The case was eventually dropped.
In 2002, the accuser gave birth to a son whom her family referred to as the only bright spot in her adult life. “That brought her a good bit of happiness. I think the ghosts continued to haunt her,” the accuser’s brother, identified only as “Johnny,” said in an interview with Variety.
The accuser’s sister, whom the New York Times identified as Sharon Loeffler, was not as gentle in describing the case’s effect on her deceased sibling.
“These guys sucked the soul and life out of her,” she told the Times, adding that if her sister could comment, she would say, “‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore.'”
The woman took her own life in 2012.
Parker’s Road to Hollywood
Parker left Penn State and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer programming from Oklahoma State in 2003. He later pivoted to acting, landing a role in Denzel Washington‘s “The Great Debaters.”
Parker’s hometown newspaper the Virginian-Pilot profiled him for the film, and made mention of the case.
“[It’s] something like that turns you into a man real fast. It teaches you the world doesn’t owe you anything,” Parker said at the time. “If I had it my way, it would never be brought up again. It’s taken six years of my life to get past it,” he added.
He went on to to win roles in films like “The Secret Life of Bees” and the acclaimed 2014 Relativity film “Beyond the Lights.” He also expanded his efforts as a filmmaker, developing the Nat Turner story into a debut writing-director effort that won wide acclaim at Sundance and prompted a bidding war before Fox Searchlight scooped up the rights for $17.5 million.
Accuser’s Suicide and Parker’s ‘Devastation’
On Tuesday, Variety revealed the accuser committed suicide, leaving behind her 10-year-old son. Parker responded to the news, as well as numerous reports that Fox Searchlight was scrambling to re-position “Birth” in advance of an expected awards campaign.
“I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow…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,” Parker wrote.
At one point in the statement, he wrote: “I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”
Parker concluded by asking his response not be taken “as an attempt to solve this with a statement. I urge you only to take accept this letter as my response to the moment.”