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A Law Student Plays the Race Card — and Gets Busted, Big Time

Johnathan Perkins

It’s time for more race-related drama from UVA Law School. Back in February, Elie wrote about a UVA Law party that featured Confederate flag decor. Now I will tell you about a 3L’s fabricated tale of racial harassment by university police.

(Yes, Lat’s writing this story. So you can relax, UVA folks — at least for now. Maybe Elie will take a crack at it on Monday.)

In late April, Johnathan Perkins, a third-year law student at UVA, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in Virginia Law Weekly, the law school’s student newspaper. In his letter, Perkins claimed that he was harassed by UVA university police while walking home from a party, purportedly on account of his race (he’s African-American). Perkins said he was moved to share the story “because it is important for my classmates to hear a real-life anecdote illustrating the myth of equal protection under the law.”

The trouble is, it was anything but a “real-life anecdote,” as Perkins himself recently confessed….

If Perkins’s intent was to spark a discussion, he succeeded. Virginia Law Weekly ran a companion piece to the letter in its April 22 edition, in which a reporter interviewed members of the faculty about the incident. Students discussed the story with one another, over lunch and at parties. Here’s what one had to say:

Personally I was touched by [Perkins’s] letter. He wrote it well, without vindictiveness, but seeking for understanding. It worked. I was so shocked that this had happened and I knew that something like this would never happen to me as a white student here. And since this had actually happened in my town, to a fellow law student of my same age and basic social surroundings, it made racial profiling so much more real to me. Many other law students had similar reactions.

University officials conducted an investigation to get to the bottom of what happened. And here’s what they found, according to UVA’s recent press release (reprinted in full below):

On May 5, after a thorough investigation into allegations that University of Virginia police officers had mistreated an African-American law student, the individual acknowledged that his story had been a fabrication.

“I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct,” he said in a written statement. “The events in the article did not occur.”

Wow — that’s actually kind of impressive. Go back and read Perkins’s letter. It’s dramatic, describing the “two different worlds” that whites and African-Americans supposedly inhabit, and invoking the names of police brutality victims Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima. And it’s detailed, with descriptions of how Perkins was supposedly manhandled by the officers, as well as lines of dialogue from the encounter (“Oh, he’s a law student.”).

And to think that it was all made up. If this whole “law” thing doesn’t work out for Perkins, he could explore a career as a novelist or screenwriter.

What’s going to happen to Perkins? Will he be charged with filing a false report? Apparently not, according to the UVA press release:

“I recognize that police misconduct does occur,” [university police chief Michael Gibson] said. “Pressing charges in this case might inhibit another individual who experiences real police misconduct from coming forward with a complaint. I want to send the message just how seriously we take such charges and that we will always investigate them with care and diligence.”

So Johnathan Perkins won’t face criminal charges as a result of his egregious and irresponsible lies misrepresentations. But he will face the scorn and anger of UVA classmates and alumni. Here’s what one had to say:

I’m pretty disgusted any one of my classmates would think so lowly of other people as to put their jobs in jeopardy “to make a point.” Especially when that point is that you have to fabricate police misconduct to show that it happens (which obviously isn’t true, but that’s the point he ended up making). I’m not pro-police by any means, but that still doesn’t justify what this kid did.

From a second source (the one who said he was initially moved by the Perkins letter):

I personally feel so betrayed by the fact that this story was made up. It hurts because the story had seriously affected me, and now every time I hear a story of racially based police misconduct this is going to be the memory that will pop into my head. And I’ll try to fight it off, but every REAL story from someone who faced something similar will be laced with the memory of this phony story fabricated to manipulate my heart-strings. It’s a sham on UVA students, and a slap in the face to every real victim of racially motivated police misconduct.

And a third:

I think that it’s really sad and troubling that Jonathan Perkins would feel the need to make up racial incidents because these sort of events do happen in real life. When people make up stories about racial harassment, it jades people to times when racism really does occur. I think his actions have hurt and embarrassed not just himself, but UVA, the professors who got involved in trying to help him, the police officers defamed, and the Charlottesville community at large. As a future attorney, Jonathan should know better.

Also, I am not sure but I think he may have violated the UVA Honor Code by filing a false police report. This is a serious breach of the standards we hold to at UVA.

Ah yes — the UVA Honor Code. Let’s look at that now. It’s a “single sanction” system, meaning that there’s one punishment for violations, and that punishment is dismissal — i.e., “one strike and you’re out.” A tipster explained it to us in more detail:

The UVa Honor code is championed by the community. In fact, the UVa website states:

“Today students at the University make a commitment not to lie, cheat, or steal within Charlottesville, Albemarle County, or where they represent themselves as University students in order to gain the trust of others. Because of this commitment, there’s a strong degree of trust among the various members of the University community. Students are also expected to conduct themselves with integrity and are presumed honorable until proven otherwise.”

Perkins is set to graduate on May 22, despite the fact that he lied to the UVa Law community, the university community, Charlottesville, and Albemarle County. As the Honor Committee states, the three criteria of a violation are: act, intent, and seriousness. Perkins knew he was lying, acted upon that fabrication by sending the story to the Virginia Law Weekly and local media outlets, and the seriousness of the situation is exemplified by the internal investigation that was started and the widespread publicity the story got in the local media outlets. This conduct is a blatant and intentional violation of the honor code and should be taken seriously.

If the honor committee does not take action against this simply because Perkins is supposed to graduate in two weeks, it undercuts the entire Honor Code system at UVa. Should a UVa law student be immune from violating the honor code simply because he’s so close to graduation? Of course not; this is a public and egregious violation of the honor code that brings shame on the entire UVa community and should be dealt with swiftly and justly, before Perkins is allowed to graduate, if he should be allowed to graduate at all.

Here’s the opinion of a second source:

I don’t think the Law School should confer a degree on this student. In addition to being a clear violation of the University’s honor code, his conduct is criminal. He should feel lucky that the police will not press charges against him. Regardless of the seriousness of the problems that he sought to raise awareness of, his means of doing so are inexcusable. He should have written an editorial about police misconduct instead of fabricating an incident.


What would possess someone in Johnathan Perkins’s shoes to do such a thing? Aside from the unethical nature of lying, in a way that could have gotten police officers fired, he ran the risk of getting caught — as he ultimately did.

(Note how he claimed, in his letter, “I saw dozens of people staring at me [being apprehended by police]….” If none of these “dozens of people” could be produced to discuss the incident, wouldn’t that cause people to question his tale?)

Could Johnathan Perkins suffer from some mental health issue that caused him to act in this way? Perhaps he will invoke a mental-health justification if called to defend himself against Honor Code charges. Cf. Jayson Blair, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times (memoir by former New York Times reporter caught in fabrication and plagiarism scandal, suggesting that the stress of being African-American in an elite environment like that of the Times may have contributed to his unethical actions).

We’ve reached out to Perkins for comment but have not heard back from him; if and when we do, we will update this post. Word on the street is that he’s scheduled to be joining a firm next year (although we don’t know which firm; if you do, please email us). We also understand that Perkins was a Peer Adviser this past year — “a sort of mentor to 1Ls.” Right now he’s not looking like the best role model.

Readers, what do you think? Should Johnathan Perkins be allowed to receive his J.D. after what he did? Read the links and press release collected below, discuss in the comments, and vote in our poll.

UPDATE (5/9/11, 3:10 PM): Here is what Elie thinks of the whole situation.

UPDATE (5/9/11, 4 PM): The UVA Law Dean, Paul Mahoney, has issued a statement about this controversy.

UPDATE (5/10/11, 6:30 PM): A tipster points out: “As a UVA grad, just wanted to point out that the focus on him graduating in two weeks as a possible reason to not initiate honor charges would likely not be considered by the honor committee…. [P]eople have had degrees revoked after being awarded them.”

P.S. In other UVA Law news, some students were ticked off by this piece in Virginia Law Weekly, in which a 2006 UVA grad basically brags about how good they had it in 2006. It’s clearly intended to be humorous, but some jobless 3Ls were not amused by lines like this one, which might have hit too close to home: “For the most part, we’ve made it to the other side. A few have fallen along the way, but even those folks have learned how to make a truly great nonfat soy latte.”

Should Johnathan Perkins be allowed to graduate from UVA Law?

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UVa law student says he made up racial profiling claim [Daily Progress]
UPDATE: Student Admits Lying about Police Harassment []
Breaking: Perkins Recants Police Misconduct Claims [Facebook – Virginia Law Weekly]
Incident at Corner Spurs Questions About Police Conduct [Virginia Law Weekly]
Letter to the Editor by Johnathan Perkins ’11 [Virginia Law Weekly]
U.Va.: Student recants racial profiling claim [Breaking News Blog / Washington Post]

Earlier: Do You Really Need Confederate-Flag Decor at Your Law School Party?


Law Student Who Alleged Police Misconduct Recants Story, Clears University Police

May 6, 2011 — On May 5, after a thorough investigation into allegations that University of Virginia police officers had mistreated an African-American law student, the individual acknowledged that his story had been a fabrication.

“I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct,” he said in a written statement. “The events in the article did not occur.”

In a letter to the editor published April 22 in the Virginia Law Weekly, the Law School’s newspaper, the third-year law student wrote about race in America and alleged that he had been stopped, questioned and mistreated by two University police officers while walking home from the Corner on the night of March 31.

University Police immediately opened an investigation, bringing in additional support from relevant outside agencies to assist in the investigation.

“I am pleased that the student realized what he did was wrong and that he was willing to come forth to acknowledge his mistake,” said Leonard W. Sandridge, the University’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We were distressed when we learned of his allegations. We took them very seriously and launched an immediate investigation on his behalf.”

The student copied Michael A. Gibson, University chief of police, among others, when he sent his letter to the editor. Gibson responded quickly, asking the student’s permission to use the letter as an official complaint so he could assign members of his command staff to begin an investigation.

Gibson told the student that he intended to investigate the student’s complaint fully and in a timely manner so that he could take appropriate actions with officers who might have been involved.

In responses to citizens who wrote to Gibson after the student’s letter was published, Gibson said he shared their concerns and that such behavior did not meet the expectations he set for his staff regarding conduct when interacting with community members. University Police officers, he said, are trained – and expected – to be both professional and courteous.

During the investigation, police reviewed all material available to them, which included dispatch records, personnel rosters, police radio tapes, interviews with the alleged victim as well as with other individuals who might have seen something, and surveillance videos from University cameras and those of privately owned businesses in the area surrounding the alleged incident.

“The student cooperated with the investigation,” Gibson said, “but details and facts of his story came into question as the investigation unfolded. Yesterday, he told us that the incident had never occurred.”

Despite that, Gibson said he has no plans to press charges or to treat this as a criminal case.

“I recognize that police misconduct does occur,” Gibson said. “Pressing charges in this case might inhibit another individual who experiences real police misconduct from coming forward with a complaint. I want to send the message just how seriously we take such charges and that we will always investigate them with care and diligence.”

Dave Chapman, commonwealth’s attorney for the City of Charlottesville, was consulted during the investigation and said he believes that investigators handled everything “by the book.” They conducted a “full, thorough and unbiased investigation that resulted … in the discovery that the complaint was unfounded.”

In a e-mail to Gibson, Chapman wrote: “It is clear from the intensity and scope of the investigation that was conducted by members of your department that this complaint was received with the highest degree of seriousness and was given the degree of attention that we in law enforcement and the community expect when allegations of police misconduct are made.”

Chapman added that had the incident actually occurred, “the investigative process followed by your department would have enabled any disciplinary process or criminal prosecution that would have been warranted under the circumstances.”

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