Rapist suspect tried in the media [Update August 24]

Rapist suspect tried in the media [Update August 24]
[August 24]

On Monday, August 20, a Charlottesville grand jury indicted Nathan Antonio Washington on six offenses stemming from the attack in the Willoughby subdivision, including forcible rape and forcible sodomy. Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman said in a written statement that his office expects to request additional charges against Washington in the four remaining sexual attacks in the city that have been linked to the same person. Officials have already said that Washington is a "suspect" in these cases.

Washington appeared today via video in the Charlottesville General District Court, where Chapman filed a motion of nolle prosequi, meaning that his office will not continue to prosecute the lesser charges against Washington filed in District Court.

[August 21]

Hours after the arrest of Nathan Antonio Washington but hours before the Monday press conference where area police announced that arrest, a post on The Hook’s blog declared, "The media frenzy has already started." By noon, four hours prior to the press conference, news of Washington’s arrest was all over the Internet. Area TV stations posted news stories on their websites alongside Washington’s not-yet-officially-released mugshot and a 2003 police sketch of the serial rapist. Police had not (and still haven’t) linked Washington to all the attacks by the serial rapist, but local media moved in to connect the dots and in some cases practically pronounce him guilty before he’d even entered a courtroom.

Hours before police announced the arrest of Nathan Antonio Washington, news reports appeared on the Internet with his mugshot and this 2003 police sketch of the serial rapist.

In the early hours of August 13, area police arrested Washington, 40, in connection with two sexual attacks in the Willoughby subdivision and at Webland Drive. Three days later, on August 16, both Charlottesville and Albemarle police confirmed that Washington had been genetically linked to those attacks. The incidents are two of seven sexual assaults that police have linked through DNA to a single person, though city and county officials have taken great care not to name Washington as the serial rapist. The police, however, have called him a "suspect" in the other five, leaving the link between Washington and the hypothetical serial rapist tenuous if not logical.

Local media coverage of Washington’s arrest and subsequent DNA connection to the two sexual assaults quickly settled on the slippery slope of juxtaposition. While the phrase "serial rapist" appeared in headlines next to Washington’s name and face, area media made varying degrees of connection between the actual man and the up-to-this-point hypothetical rapist. Most stories noted Washington’s jobs as a "meat cutter" at the Barracks Road Harris Teeter and as a delivery man for The Daily Progress, though as the story gained traction throughout the week, TV reporters couldn’t settle on a name, referring to Washington as both "Nathan Antonio" and "Tony" or "Toni."

Early reports ran the gamut. While the gossip website cvillain.com quoted stories from The Hook and WCAV under the headline "Rapist Caught!!," the actual stories were framed a bit more judiciously. WCAV headlined its story "Charlottesville Rape Suspect Arrested," while NBC 29 went a bit further by linking the arrest to the serial rapist: "Serial Rapist Suspect Arrested." Both stories were posted before the official announcement by police.

News stories following Monday’s press conference presented Washington in varying degrees of presumed guilt, even though he had yet to be arraigned. In a post prior to Thursday’s DNA announcement, The Hook reported that the police have the correct man in custody, saying that "sources close to the investigation" confirmed police already had DNA links. The Daily Progress was more cautious in print. In a story headlined "Washington a long-term suspect," the Progress maintained a distance between the two crimes for which Washington had been arrested and the larger case of the serial rapist.

TV coverage of the arrest, though, took on a more aggressive if not hysterical tone. On Monday, the day of Washington’s arrest, NBC 29 began a story by saying, "It seems he’s been living in the community all along, just like police thought," before reporting that Washington was an Albemarle County resident. Police had long suspected the serial rapist was living in the Charlottesville area. The "he" in the opening sentence seamlessly blended the serial rapist and Washington while couching such an allegation behind one word: "seems."

In an August 14 story titled "Longo likens solving case to math problem," NBC 29 reported that "five of the seven cases are still unsolved," implying that police had in fact solved the two in which they implicated Washington, even though he had yet to step foot into a courtroom.

With Washington receiving an extension of his arraignment over the weekend so his newly acquired lawyer Rhonda Quagliana could have time to prepare, news of the case quickly dwindled. The drought in official action led media to search elsewhere for background information about Washington, from Harris Teeter to current and former neighbors.

Reports from neighbors soon fell into a common theme found in stories chronicling a long-awaited arrest in a violent, high-profile case. They expressed disbelief that Washington would be capable of such violent crimes. NBC 29 showed one of Washington’s former neighbors, Regina West, puzzling over a copy of The Daily Progress, expressing her surprise at his arrest. WCAV 19 broadcasted an interview with Washington’s wife in which she strongly denied that Washington was guilty. In the interview, there were no shots of her face, only of her hands, with a prominent wedding ring, worrying on her lap.

Such reports speak to our notion of what a rapist looks and acts like—that he is a skulking, drooling psychopath, not a member of our society. The idea that the rapist is somehow an "other" flies in the face of what we do know: The majority of rapes—which, according to the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, is a common crime—are committed by acquaintances or friends of the victim.

Although there have been 32 rapes reported in Charlottesville and Albemarle County this year as of July, and though the last sexual attack attributed to the serial rapist occurred in 2004, residents interviewed in The Hook and Daily Progress expressed a sense of ease after Washington’s arrest. Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, though, warned citizens not to let their guards down in the wake of the arrest.

Previous coverage:

County man arrested in two sexual attacks [August 14 and 16]

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