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Why Jamie Leigh Jones Lost Her KBR Rape Case

Her story of a brutal attack in Iraq sparked a national outcry—but how much of it is true?

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 4:30 AM PDT

UPDATE July 8, 2011 5 p.m.:

After fighting for four years to reach the inside of a courtroom, Jamie Leigh Jones has lost her rape and sexual harassment lawsuit against military contractor KBR. After a day and a half of deliberations, a federal jury in Houston answered "no" to the question of whether Jones was raped by former firefighter Charles Bortz while working in Iraq in 2005. It also found that KBR did not engage in fraud in inducing Jones to sign her employment contract to go overseas.

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The allegations were explosive when they first hit in 2007: A 20-year-old woman named Jamie Leigh Jones alleged that four days after going to work in Iraq for contracting giant KBR in July 2005, she was drugged and gang-raped by fellow contractors. She accused the company, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, of imprisoning her in a shipping container after she reported the rape, and suggested KBR had tampered with some of the medical evidence that had been collected at an Army hospital. The harrowing story has made international headlines. It's been the subject of congressional hearings and has inspired legislation. Jones even plays a starring role in the new documentary Hot Coffee, about efforts to limit access to the justice system.

Jones' charges fell on fertile ground, compounding KBR's reputation as a corporate scofflaw—all the more so when it came out that the firm's contract had included a mandatory arbitration clause intended to block employees from suing it. Jones spent years fighting for a jury trial, and now, six years after the alleged attack, she is finally getting her day in court in a civil suit that accuses KBR of knowingly sending her into a hostile workplace. The verdict could come as early as Thursday. And—in a twist that's likely to shock her numerous supporters—there's a good chance she will lose.

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Jones' trial, which started on June 13, is highlighting significant holes and discrepancies in her story. Not only has the federal trial judge already thrown out large portions of her case, evidence introduced in the trial raises the question of whether Jones has exaggerated and embellished key aspects of her story.

None of this means that Jones was not raped in Iraq. But the evidence does undermine her credibility and could create serious doubts in jurors' minds.

"Oftentimes the truth is in between," says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. "The truth may be that this wasn't rape as we come to understand it in the law, but it wasn't something that was appropriate. It doesn't mean that something didn't happen." However, if Jones hasn't been entirely truthful and the jury rules against her, it could be a major setback for sexual assault victims, particularly women serving in war zones. "The problem with cases like this is, if it turns out that she's making it up, it really does a disservice to the many women who really are raped who have trouble coming forward," Levenson says.

The company claimed that Jones was a relentless self-promoter who "sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress."

When Jones first went public with her allegations, they sparked an immediate public outcry. Her charges seemed to confirm the worst about the war in Iraq—whose key promoter, Dick Cheney, was a former Halliburton CEO. She was invited on a host of news shows to tell her story. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton called for an investigation. Jones started a foundation to bring to light abuses against female contractors working in conflict zones. She also became a poster child for the push to limit workers' rights to sue their employers. Thanks to the fine print in her employment contract, Jones was required to take her case against KBR to a private arbitrator hired by KBR, rather than to a civil court and jury.

After 15 months of arbitration, Jones went to federal court to argue that the arbitration clause in her contract should not apply to cases of sexual assault. Her fight caught the attention of newly elected Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), among other lawmakers. Franken parlayed Jones' case into his first major legislative coup, a bill barring the military from contracting with companies that require employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or assault claims.

In 2009, the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed her case to move forward. KBR then asked the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court's decision and send Jones back to arbitration. It claimed that Jones was a relentless self-promoter who has "sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress." KBR also suggested that much of Jones' story was fabricated. The company said in a footnote, "Many, if not all, of her allegations against the KBR Defendants are demonstrably false. The KBR Defendants intend to vigorously contest Jones's allegations and show that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable." (KBR eventually withdrew the petition because of the Franken amendment.)

The media (me included) largely wrote this off as a sign that KBR was headed to the gutter to disparage a rape victim. But now that the case has gone to trial, it's clear that KBR wasn't just trying to scare Jones into settling. The court filings portray a very different version of the story. Here are some of the most sensational claims Jones has made, contrasted with the evidence that has emerged at trial:

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