In an open letter first posted on The Root, the former students claim to have been “present during the entire trial and ultimate exoneration” of both Parker and his then-classmate and current collaborator Jean Celestin.
Parker was acquitted in a 2001 trial after an 18-year-old female classmate at Penn State accused the Birth of a Nation director and Celestin of sexual assault. Celestin was initially found guilty, but his conviction was later overturned on an appeal.
“We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now,” the former students wrote in their lengthy statement, pointing out the “gross and blatant misinformation campaign regarding the events that took place during that time period.”
“Our goal in speaking out is to provide accurate information about what really took place during that time,” the statement adds.
The former students go on to point out several instances in which they claim the investigators and jury on the case were “racially biased” against Parker and Celestin throughout the trial.
They allege that not only were witnesses “threatened” into building a case against the two men, but that the prosecution’s key witness changed his statement “several times” throughout the trial.
“As a result of those threats, some witnesses (including one of the undersigned) had to seek legal protection from the very investigators charged with finding the facts,” they state.
The former students also speak out against the idea that Parker was found innocent based on the fact that he had previous relations with the alleged victim.
“The jury’s decision was based on prosecution and defense witnesses and evidence in the court record that indicated that the young woman was both conscious and engaged during the evening in question.”
In the statement, the former students make a point to reveal that “some of us are women who have survived sexual violence,” and that they fully understand the issue of victim-blaming, but that in this case, they believe Parker and Celesin are “yet another example of the blatant racism and violent hostility faced by black students on Penn State’s campus.”
“Our belief in Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker’s innocence was validated as we sat through the court trial, heard all of the evidence and witnessed a justice system that was trying its best to lock both men up for as long as possible,” they wrote. “But that system couldn’t bury them completely. The facts that spoke to their innocence, and the community that was unwilling to allow two additional young black men to be wrongfully convicted of something they did not do, would not allow it.”
They conclude: “It is our hope and prayer that the outpouring of emotion and discussion that this topic has generated can ignite a process toward healing in our families and communities – a process that is so desperately needed if we are going to bring about true social change.”
The statement comes on the heels of the American Film Institute’s cancellation of an upcoming screening of Birth of a Nation followed by a Q&A session with Parker – which would have marked his first public appearance since news of his involvement in the case resurfaced.
The film is however, still on track to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.