Fifteen years after it was litigated in a courtroom, the case of Nate Parker is being relitigated in public. While attending Penn State in the late 1990s, Parker and his wrestling teammate Jean Celestin were accused of raping a female student. Parker was found not guilty, while Celestin was found guilty, only to have his conviction overturned. Though the case has been a matter of public record for over a decade, it has only recently entered the spotlight thanks to Parker's increased profile: He wrote, directed, and stars in the Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation, which set a sales record at Sundance and figured to be a major player in this year's Oscar race. (Celestin shares a "story by" credit on the movie.)
After the news that the woman in the case committed suicide in 2012, Parker's film is spurring debates about the divide between art and artist, while the man himself has embarked on a last-minute PR campaign to respond to the controversy in the lead up to the film's release later this week. Below, you'll find a timeline of the charges and their aftermath, which draws from court documents as well as the accounts of the case from The Daily Beast, Deadline, and The Guardian.
August 19, 1999
After meeting through a mutual friend earlier in the summer, Parker, then a sophomore, and the 18-year-old Penn State freshman we'll call Jane Doe hang out at her dorm room. Parker tries to have sex with her but she refuses, saying she doesn't know him well enough. She performs oral sex on him instead. As Doe later testifies, "I didn't want to have sex but I didn't want to leave it at nothing."
August 20, 1999
Doe waits for Parker for a date at a bar near campus. Parker is late, and Doe accepts drinks from a construction worker and from a student named Rugigana Kavamahanga while waiting for him to arrive. Later, in court, lawyers raise the possibility that the combination of the alcohol and Doe's prescribed Prozac caused her to black out.
August 21, 1999
Parker arrives at the bar around midnight, and he and Doe join a small group leaving for Kavamahanga's apartment. According to Doe, at around 1 a.m., Parker invites her back to his apartment to sleep. A friend later claims she "wasn’t really making that much sense" and "was talking very loud," while Kavamahanga says she was "coherent but noticeably drunk." Another friend later testifies that Parker told her Jane Doe was "extremely intoxicated." Parker later disputes this, saying Doe "didn't drink around me and sure didn't seem drunk that night."
Once Doe enters the apartment, accounts continue to diverge. Doe claims she fell asleep quickly, and then woke up to find Parker and Celestin, his roommate, having sex with her: "I just remember opening my eyes and seeing Nate having intercourse with me. It was just a split second. And then awake again and … somebody just on top of me other than Nate." In his statement to police, Celestin claims that Doe pulled him by the hand into Parker's room, began having sex with Parker, and gestured for him to join. Parker, too, maintains the sex was consensual. Kavamahanga later testifies that Parker told him he and Celestin had "run a train on" Doe.
However, another student named Tamerlane Kangas, who had driven Parker and Doe to the apartment, later testifies that he and Celestin had both been outside Parker's room watching him have sex with Doe. "There was a smirk on his face, because he caught us watching him," Kangas says, "and so that’s when he motioned for us to come in." He claims he told Celestin, "You don’t want to go inside the room," and left after Celestin ignored him and started to have sex with Doe. "I figured that [she] was there for Nate and not, you know, Nate and Jean," he says. (During the trial, defense lawyers argue Kangas's testimony was influenced by police threats to charge him alongside Parker and Celestin.)
The next morning, Doe claims, she wakes to find Parker having sex with her again. Parker later claims this too was consensual: "She was awake and did not show any signs of discomfort." After leaving the apartment, Doe says, she spends the day in "the worst pain I have ever felt in my life ... I couldn't walk."
September 7, 1999
Doe meets with Dr. Anna Shallcross, telling the doctor she has been sexually assaulted. Shallcross later testifies that Doe's cervix showed signs of inflammation "from infection or some type of trauma."
Doe calls Parker, secretly recording the conversation. (Pennsylvania's two-party consent law makes such a recording illegal.) She presses him to tell her who else she had sex with that night. "I remember waking up and seeing somebody else fucking on top of me and me asking where you were," she tells him. "You are so full of shit," he says, denying that anyone else had had sex with her.
Soon after, Parker and Celestin seek guidance from two wrestling team mentors, Brian Favors and Kerry McCoy. Parker says that, "For some reason she says she doesn’t remember the evening," McCoy later recalls. Both men allegedly tell Parker and Celestin to be "nice" to Doe and find out what she wants. According to a statement from Parker, McCoy tells him, "These things come up from time to time with girls who feel guilty about what they did before, or may even find themselves pregnant with a multiracial child and rejected by their parents."
October 13, 1999
After receiving counseling from the university, Doe reports the alleged assault to State College police.
Around this time, Doe calls Parker again. This time the call is recorded by the police, who have a warrant. She tells him her period is late, and again asks him how many people she had sex with in his apartment. "I didn't want to have sex with you that night," she says. "I was so out of it, my whole body was numb, I couldn't do anything about it." This time, Parker identifies Celestin as the other man, but continues to dispute her account of the evening: "You were all for it ... It'd be different if you were just laying there, but you weren’t. You were active." Doe asks to speak to Celestin so he can apologize to her; Celestin takes the phone and tells her, "I really don’t know what I’m apologizing for, but ... if anything offended you, and you got hurt, I’m sorry."
October 18, 1999
Parker and Celestin give interviews with the police maintaining that Doe was not drunk and the sex was consensual. Parker later claims that in his interrogation detective Chris Weaver "went into a rage," telling him the Penn State wrestling team had "raped and battered the whole town."
October 21, 1999
The two men are arrested and charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault and indecent assault, which prompts their suspension from the wrestling team. Parker posts $25,000 bail, on the condition that he have "absolutely no contact" with Doe. Doe later says that the two men began an "organized campaign" of harassment against her after their arrests.
October 27, 1999
According to Doe, Parker shows up in the common area of her dorm at night, violating the terms of his bail.
October 28, 1999
Doe reports the alleged harassment to Penn State.
October 29, 1999
According to Doe's subsequent lawsuit, university administrator Joseph Puzycki instructs Parker and Celestin not to have any contact with Doe, and vice versa. He reportedly warns them that a failure to comply could lead to their expulsion.
November 8, 1999
Doe sends another statement to the university complaining that the harassment — which she claims includes Parker and his friends following her around campus shouting "sexual epithets," calling her incessantly, and hiring a private eye to put photos of her around campus — has intensified. She also files a formal complaint with the school's Office of Judicial Affairs.
November 17, 1999
According to a later complaint, Doe attempts to commit suicide. She subsequently meets with Puzycki about the alleged harassment, but says he refuses to discipline Parker or Celestin.
November 23, 1999
According to the complaint, Doe attempts suicide again.
November 25, 1999
Doe writes another letter to Penn State about Parker and Celestin. She later claims the university's only response is to move her to off-campus housing. She also says the school publishes her new phone number in the student directory against her expressed wishes, allowing the harassment to continue.
Doe drops out of Penn State, but continues to live in State College. She later claims that the harassment continues throughout her time in the town.
Parker and Celestin are readmitted to the wrestling team.
October 5, 2001
After a three-day trial, Celestin is found guilty of sexual assault. Parker is cleared of all charges. The defense had repeatedly brought up Doe's attire on the night in question, as well as her history of drinking and her previous consensual encounter with Parker.
November 20, 2001
Celestin is sentenced to six to 12 months in prison, lower than the mandatory sentence of three to six years, after multiple Penn State administrators send letters of support to judge Thomas Kistler. The jail sentence is delayed to allow Celestin time to graduate, a decision that sparks controversy on campus: A victims-rights group calls his potential graduation "an absolute indignity," while the school's Black Caucus, of which Celestin is a member, pushes for him to be allowed to walk, noting that all but one of the jurors in the case were white. (Doe is also white.)
December 7, 2001
Celestin is expelled from Penn State for two years, with the possibility of graduating after his expulsion is up. The school claims it had been waiting, with Doe's support, for the case to be resolved in the legal system before taking action against either of the men. Parker transfers to Oklahoma around this time, graduating in 2003.
December 5, 2002
Penn State settles with Doe for $17,500. The university does not admit fault, but does agree to change its anti-harassment policies. Her lawyer tells reporters the suit wasn't about money: "The critical factor for her all along was changing policies at Penn State so this doesn't happen to anyone else."
May 2, 2003
In denying Celestin's appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court also orders judge Kistler to give him to a harsher sentence.
March 30, 2004
Celestin is resentenced to two to four years in prison.
October 28, 2005
While serving his sentence, Celestin is granted a new trial after the Pennsylvania Superior Court rules that his original attorney erred in not challenging the admission of Jane Doe's illegally recorded phone call, as well as various hearsay testimony. Prosecutors eventually decline to retry the case, and Celestin's conviction is vacated.
December 23, 2007
With the release of The Great Debaters, Parker's big break, the actor is profiled by his hometown paper, the Virginian-Pilot. The interview touches on the rape charges. "Something like that turns you into a man real fast. It teaches you the world doesn't owe you anything," he says. "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." Still, he attempts to place the accusation at the center of a redemption arc: "I know if all that hadn't happened then, I wouldn't be here today."
April 15, 2012
Jane Doe commits suicide at a rehab facility. "She became detached from reality," her brother later tells Variety. "The progression was very quick and she took her life." Though Variety notes there's no direct link between the alleged assault and Doe's suicide, her brother points to the trial as a turning point: "If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point."
January 25, 2016
Amid the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite, The Birth of a Nation debuts at Sundance to a rapturous reception. (The buzz is so good Parker receives a standing ovation before the movie has even screened.) The film sparks a bidding war, which Fox Searchlight wins with a record $17.5 million deal.
August 12, 2016
With the film's release approaching, Parker gives interviews to Variety and Deadline attempting to head off a public conversation about the rape charge, which was left out of most of the initial Birth of a Nation coverage from Sundance. "Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life," Parker tells Variety. "It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That's that." His response is widely criticized on social media for its seeming lack of empathy for Doe.
August 16, 2016
Variety breaks the news of Doe's suicide. In Facebook post, Parker claims he had been unaware of her death. "I am filled with profound sorrow," he writes. "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. I cannot — nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial ... I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will." Parker continues to maintain his innocence, but says "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."
Following the news, other members of Doe's family release a statement to the New York Times, saying that, while they "appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions," they "are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and ... will not take part in stoking its coals." However, Doe's sister Sharon Loeffler tells the paper her sister would have appreciated the coverage and encouraged other victims to come forward.
Fox Searchlight releases its own statement, noting it was "aware of the incident" and emphasizing that Parker "was found innocent and cleared of all charges." The studio says it will stand behind the actor and is "proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."
August 17, 2016
A street artist places Photoshopped Birth of a Nation posters across Los Angeles, emblazoned with the text, "Nate Parker Rapist?"
August 22, 2016
The Women’s Law Project, which represented Doe in her lawsuit against Penn State, releases a statement reminding universities to uphold their Title IX obligations to female students by protecting them from sexual assault.
August 24, 2016
The American Film Institute cancels its screening of The Birth of a Nation, which would have been Parker's first public appearance since the scandal broke widely.
August 25, 2016
Four of Parker's Penn State classmates write an open letter maintaining his innocence. They blame the prosecution on the "intense racial hostilities" on campus at the time, saying investigators threatened various witnesses and coerced Kangas into changing his testimony. They also categorically deny Doe's claims that Parker and Celestin harassed her.
August 26, 2016
In an interview with Ebony, Parker admits that, as a college student, he "never thought" about the concept of consent. "At 19, if a woman said no, no meant no," he says. "If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? If I touch her breast and she’s down for me to touch her breast, cool. If I touch her lower, and she’s down and she’s not stopping me, cool." He also calls his initial response to the allegations resurfacing "arrogant," and says his views on gender are still evolving: "All I can do is seek the information that’ll make me stronger, that’ll help me overcome my toxic masculinity, my male privilege."
September 2, 2016
Birth of a Nation actress Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor, pens an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the "state of stomach-churning confusion" she's been in since learning of the allegations. Though Union says she "cannot take these accusations lightly," she says she hopes the film's release will spur a much-needed conversation about sexual assault. "I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence," she writes. "To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary."
September 11, 2016
At a Q&A session at the Toronto Film Festival, which Nation is playing, Parker dodges a question about why he hasn't apologized to Doe's family. "I've addressed this a few times, and I'm sure I’ll address it again," he says. "This is a forum for the film. This is a forum for the other people who are sitting on the stage. It's not mine, I don't own it, it doesn’t belong to me, so I definitely don't want to hijack it."
September 29, 2016
Loeffler pens an open letter in Variety speaking out against the film, particularly a scene in which Turner's wife is raped by a group of white men. "This is fiction," she writes, noting that the event does not show up in the historical record. "I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape."
October 2, 2016
Parker sits down with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes to talk about the case. He tells Cooper he doesn't "feel guilty" about his actions the night of the alleged assault, but admits that "as a Christian man, just being in that situation" was wrong. Though he says that he was "devastated" by the news of Doe's suicide, he also refuses to apologize: "At some point I have to say it: I was falsely accused. I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated — I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is … no."
October 3, 2016
Parker appears on Good Morning America, reiterating his argument from 60 Minutes: "I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent, and I'm not going to apologize for that."
October 7, 2016
The Birth of a Nation is scheduled to be released in theaters.