GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Attorneys for alleged rape victims in a civil lawsuit against Johnson City and its police department are asking a federal judge to prevent City officials from what they call any further “extrajudicial statements shifting the blame to Plaintiffs.”
Friday’s motion to “enjoin extrajudicial conduct” comes a week after a news conference in which Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball discussed the city’s initial answer to a June 21 lawsuit.
During that conference, Ball explained one of the city’s defense strategies known as “comparative fault.” The motion alleges that Ball, among other things, “made misstatements of fact that stated that all Plaintiffs in this matter participated in taking drugs prior to their sexual assaults.”
In a memorandum supporting the motion, the Jane Doe attorneys wrote that they’re seeking “a narrowly tailored order enjoining any further public, extrajudicial statements by Ball and any other representative of Johnson City which are misleading, and/or factually inaccurate.”
The City of Johnson City replied to a News Channel 11 request for comment about the motion, which was filed around 2 p.m. Friday.
“The City disagrees with the plaintiffs’ limited, selected, and out of context characterizations of the information City Manager Ball relayed to the public in the August 25, 2023 media briefing,” the city wrote in an email.
“The public can listen to the full press briefing and decide for themselves the accuracy of the plaintiffs’ latest accusations.”
The Jane Does’ suit was filed on behalf of nine alleged rape victims of former downtown businessman Sean Williams. It alleges the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) followed unconstitutional practices of investigation and other policing during a period when the women were allegedly raped by Williams and some were reporting those incidents to police.
The city has denied all claims in the suit in the answer it filed Aug. 25.
Recent developments in Williams’ complicated criminal cases have revealed that when North Carolina police arrested Williams April 29, they recovered digital devices with folders containing images and video of him raping at least 52 women. Among them, according to the Jane Doe attorneys, are several of the Jane Does.
When Ball discussed the city’s Aug. 25 answer to the complaint, she said she was doing so in an effort to be transparent about the case, which is one of two pending against the city related to Sean Williams and the JCPD.
Ball explained the concept of comparative fault — which can allow for a percentage reduction in damages if a civil defendant shows that plaintiffs bear some level of fault or responsibility — but also stressed the difference between that civil defense and how she said Johnson City handles criminal sexual assault complaints.
“In criminal cases there is never any good reason that anybody deserves to be raped and when people come forward and they have been raped or sexually assaulted that is never a factor in terms of the police department investigating that charge without bias toward the person who is coming in, the victim,” she said.
She said the “two different sides to a legal system” can be very confusing.
Friday’s motion, though, alleges that Ball’s comments about comparative fault had several impacts that warrant an injunction. They allege that Ball’s statements about the alleged victims, “had the effect of intimidating Plaintiffs and disparaging them to the public by implying they were drug addicts.”
“Her statements will also likely have a chilling effect on the dozens of other survivors of Williams who have not yet felt safe to come forward and who may be witnesses in this case,” it added.
At around the 6 minute, 37 second mark of the news conference (it can be viewed below), Ball says this:
“Within the lawsuit, the Jane Doe lawsuit as we refer to it, there are allegations that are made by Jane Does and in that factual information that they provide it indicates that they consumed and partook of illegal drugs during the course of that time period with visit and that is contained within the information that they provided within the lawsuit.”
About 30 seconds later, Ball also says “they partook of illegal drugs, admittedly within the complaint they have acknowledged this, our attorneys in the civil lawsuit have listed that. If they do not list that, then throughout this lawsuit they can never use that as a legitimate defense in this civil lawsuit.”
The plaintiffs attorneys — Vanessa Baehr-Jones of Oakland, Calif.-based Advocates for Survivors of Abuse and Heather Moore Collins, Ashley Shoemaker Walter and Caroline Drinnon of Nashville-based HMC Civil Rights — claim in a supporting memorandum that several of the Jane Does did not admit to using drugs.
“This was factually inaccurate as to all Plaintiffs — Jane Does 1, 2, 5, and 9 did not take any drugs before they were raped by Williams — and misleading as to the rest since it is indisputable that Williams’ (sic) himself drugged his victims,” the memorandum of law states.
Williams has not been charged as of this time with any sex crimes. In a footnote, the plaintiffs’ attorneys state that there exists proof Williams “kept folders with images of his rape victims on his computer with titles, ‘(first name) drugged.’ Within these folders were images of the clearly unconscious rape victims being sexually assaulted.”
The plaintiffs’ supporting evidence also includes declarations from two of the Jane Does, who at this point remain anonymous in the lawsuit.
Jane Doe 2’s declaration states that she was at work Aug. 25 “when my father called me and asked whether I had seen the news. I said no. My father then said something to the effect, ‘It’s outrageous, they’re painting the victims to be drug addicts.”
Doe 2 stated that she read an article about the conference and that it “was hurtful to read what (Ball) had said.” She referred to recent evidence about more than 50 women allegedly being drugged and raped by Williams and stated that “it felt as though Ms. Ball was justifying their lack of action by pointing fingers at the victims.”
She wrote that it also felt intimidating and “came across as a threat; you can come for us if you want but we’re going to use what we have against you.”
Ball did not use the word drug addicts at any point during the news conference. She made several references to wanting victims to feel safe coming forward.
“The criminal side we are committed to serving the victims with compassion and care,” she said around nine minutes into the conference. “We have a great relationship with our district attorney and his office and we are pursuing sexual assault cases in every way that we should.”
In its statement Friday, the City added this about it and the JCPD’s current work and about its approach to the Jane Doe suit.
“The City and the Johnson City Police Department remain steadfast in a fervent desire to help victims of crime pursue justice as City Manager Ball often reiterated in her August 25, 2023 media briefing.
“The City intends to defend itself against the claims that have been made by the Jane Does. At the same time, JCPD is following the directive of the District Attorney to aid in a successful criminal prosecution of Williams on behalf of the available victims.”
The City can file a response to the motion prior to Magistrate Judge Cynthia Wyrick’s decision on whether to grant the injunction. Later Friday after the submission of the motion, Wyrick submitted an order granting the plaintiffs’ amended complaint, which was submitted Aug. 26.