Inside 'Birth of a Nation' Director Nate Parker's 1999 Rape Trial

Nate Parker's involvement in a college rape trial is back in the spotlight following the critical success of his new film and recent comments from his late accuser's family

Nate Parker
Photo: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Birth of a Nation

director Nate Parker’s involvement in a college rape trial has come back into the spotlight with the success of his new film and recent comments from his accuser’s family.

Parker, who wrote, directed and starred in the early Oscar contender, was acquitted in a 2001 trial after an 18-year-old female classmate at Penn State University accused the director and his Birth of Nation collaborator and friend, Jean Celestin, of sexual assault in 1999.

The director issued a lengthy statement about the case, expressing the “profound sorrow” he felt after learning that his rape accuser committed suicide four years ago.

In the statement, Parker wrote that while he maintains his innocence, he looks back “on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

The accuser’s older brother, who recently spoke out about the case, told Variety that she committed suicide in 2012 at age 30. (There is no evidence the suicide is directly related to the trial.)

“She became detached from reality,” the brother, who identified himself as Johnny, told the website, while honoring his sister’s wishes to remain anonymous. “The progression was very quick and she took her life.”

She testified in court that she had attempted to kill herself twice after the alleged rape, Variety reports, and according to her death certificate obtained by the outlet, she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse …”

“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,” Johnny told Variety. “The trial was pretty tough for her.”

Meanwhile, the late victim’s family released a statement to The New York Times, saying: “We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals. While we cannot protect the victim from this media storm, we can do our best to protect her son. For that reason, we ask for privacy for our family and do not wish to comment further.”

However, the sister of the woman, whom the paper identifies as Sharon Loeffler, is refuting that statement, saying it does not represent the sentiments of other family members, or the woman herself. “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘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 various family members’ comments come just days after Parker discussed the incident in interviews with Variety and Deadline. “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” he told Variety. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”

Parker, an actor who has also appeared in such films as Beyond the Lights and Red Tails, maintained he had consensual sex with the accuser at the time, but the woman claimed she was unconscious and did not consent to having sex with Parker or Celestin, according The Hollywood Reporter. She also alleged in a later civil suit against Penn State that was settled out of court that she was harassed by Parker and Celestin on campus after reporting the alleged incident to police, the website reports.

Parker was suspended from the Penn State wrestling team and later transferred to college in Oklahoma. Celestin, however, was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, according to court documents obtained by Variety. He later appealed the ruling and a judge ordered a second trial, which was thrown out in 2005 after the accuser decided not to testify, the website reports.

“I think by today’s legal standards, a lot has changed with regards to universities and the laws in sexual assault,” her brother, Johnny, told Variety. “I feel certain if this were to happen in 2016, the outcome would be different than it was. Courts are a lot stricter about this kind of thing. You don’t touch someone who is so intoxicated – period.”

The story has received renewed attention in light of Parker’s new film Birth of a Nation, which garnered early Oscar attention after selling to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17 million.

Birth of a Nation, which has the same title as the D.W. Griffith abjectly racist 1915 film, follows the 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner, an African-American preacher who convinced his fellow slaves to turn against their masters.

The film is slated to arrive in theaters on Oct. 7, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, studio sources say that Birth of a Nation remains on track for that release date. It remains unclear, however, what kind of role Parker will play in promoting the film – its publicity campaign reportedly included plans for Parker to travel to churches and college campuses to address themes of social injustice.

“His character should be under a microscope because of this incident,” Johnny told the magazine. “If you removed these two people, the project is commendable. But there’s a moral and ethical stance you would expect from someone with regard to this movie.”

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