As the national news media descended Wednesday on the story of a now-suspended University of Wisconsin-Madison student accused of sexually assaulting multiple fellow students, the young man's attorneys issued a statement arguing that "the rapid-fire news cycle, combined with the viral nature of social media," had resulted in a "modern-day character assassination."
Alec R. Cook, a 20-year-old business major from Edina, Minn., is expected to face some 30 charges related to sexual assault – including strangulation and false imprisonment — when he appears at a Dane County courtroom hearing Thursday afternoon for a judge to set bail. Cook currently is in police custody, suspended from the university, and prohibited under the terms of his original bail from setting foot on campus.
During its nightly newscast Wednesday, NBC News reported the allegations against Cook from Bascom Hill on the UW campus. The Washington Post also Wednesday reported the Madison case under the headline "Dozens come forward in University of Wisconsin sex assault case, 'stalking' list seized."
A few days ago, the Daily Beast reported on it with the headline: "UW-Madison Frat Boy Accused of Serial Rape."
Cook was arrested last week when a 20-year-old student told police that he had attacked her in his apartment on Oct. 12. Two other students then came forward to report that they, too, were sexually assaulted, and Cook was re-arrested Friday. One woman said she was assaulted Feb. 12 and the other said she was assaulted in 2015. A fourth woman contacted UW-Madison police to report she was inappropriately touched by Cook during a ballroom dance class 15 times last spring.
Allegations against Cook by at least three other women are under investigation.
National attention in recent years has intensely focused on campus sexual assault – including The Rolling Stone defamation trial currently underway involving a fabricated story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia.
Cook's attorneys, Christopher T. Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Wednesday evening urged the public to "wait for the facts before condemning Alec Cook."
"As a nation and society, we believe that each and every one of us is presumed innocent until proven guilty," they said in a statement. "This principle belongs to each one of us... We despise public lynchings and we oppose vigilante justice. Historically, those sorts of injustices happened when angry mobs took to the streets."
The internet has replaced the streets, the attorneys said.
"As a result, for the past few days, we have seen how the rapid-fire internet news cycle erodes that presumption of innocence."