Fate of suspect before UTMB faculty members Feb 15 2004

By Carter Thompson
The Daily News
Published February 15, 2004
GALVESTON — A panel made up of three faculty members at the University of Texas Medical Branch later this month will decide whether a medical student indicted on the charge of attempted sexual assault will be allowed to continue his studies.

Lincoln Coffie, 32, has been attending classes since a Jan. 6 hearing on an emergency order that barred him from the campus.

The university and Coffie’s attorney defended his right to attend classes, noting the presumption of his innocence and adding his access to the campus is limited to minimize any contact with his accuser.

But the alleged victim, Chykeetra Maltbia, 23, said the university had disregarded her right to pursue her education. She said she has seen Coffie on campus at least five times since he returned and has sought therapy, begun taking antidepressants and curtailed her own time on campus as a result.

“It’s a scary feeling,” she said. “He doesn’t have to say anything. Just seeing him makes me unproductive the rest of day. I’m not used to being scared of going anywhere and now I’ve turned into person looking over my shoulder.”

Coffie was arrested on Nov. 18 at Maltbia’s West End apartment. The indictment handed down Dec. 16 said he had forced Maltbia onto her bed and removed her clothes with the intent of sexually assaulting her.

Maltbia said she was able to fend off her attacker, barricade herself in her bedroom and call police.

Tad Nelson, Coffie’s attorney, said his client was not guilty and keeping him from pursuing his medical education violated his right to due process.

“The last I checked we still do live in America,” he said. “The Constitution says you’re innocent until proven guilty. Think of all the irreparable damage you do to a man because of someone’s blank complaint. That’s why we have jury system.”

Maltbia said she and Coffie were acquaintances from their undergraduate days at Baylor. Coffie sought romantic involvement, while Maltbia demanded the relationship remain a distant one of a second-year student helping a first-year student, she said.

Coffie agreed to be on campus from 8 a.m. to noon on weekdays, Nelson said. Since he is a first-year student and Maltbia is second-year, UTMB officials and Nelson said this was an accommodation to minimize contact between the two.

“If a group wants to study with him they have to go off campus,” Nelson said as an example of the limits on Coffie outside of the four-hour daily window.

Maltbia said the arrangement was clearly not working. She also said three of the times she had seen Coffie on campus were before 8 a.m. or after noon. She said friends also told her he attended a Black History Month celebration put on by a minority student organization earlier this month.

Everyone agrees that the criminal court couldn’t keep Coffie from going back to campus. Maltbia said the university should suspend Coffie pending the hearing on Feb. 27.

A victim advocates group has gotten involved at Maltbia’s request. Officials of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization, said they would be studying UTMB’s policies for shortcomings in how it treated alleged victims of violent crime.

So far, it appeared the university’s policies were adequate but the implementation had not been, said S. Daniel Carter, the group’s vice president.

He said federal law required UTMB to respond promptly to a complaint of sexual assault. He criticized the university for not holding the hearing on a complaint they received in November earlier than Feb. 27.

“That is not prompt,” he said. “I don’t think that’s prompt by anybody’s interpretation.”

Chris Comer, the university’s assistant vice president of public affairs, said federal law barred her from disclosing specifics but officials thought they had “made the appropriate decision” in allowing Coffie to attend classes. She also said the university was trying to balance the rights and interests of both students.

“Quite simply, we don’t punish students who have only been accused of something,” she said.

Maltbia said the university had bent over backwards to accommodate Coffie while giving her little consideration. The disparate treatment, she said, began when medical school officials testified at the Jan. 6 hearing that both students could continue with their studies on campus with minimal contact.

Maltbia produced e-mails she had traded with Dr. Lauree Thomas, associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the school, in which Maltbia pleaded for Coffie to be suspended pending the hearing.

Maltbia cited student rules that allow the university to take immediate disciplinary action pending a formal hearing against a student who violates university rules.

Thomas responded that only the hearing panel could determine whether rules had been violated, suggesting no interim action could be taken. University officials last week acknowledged they could take interim disciplinary action, but chose not to.

The university also changed its position on whether Maltbia could attend entire the hearing or could only be present for her testimony.

University attorneys on Friday informed Maltbia that she would be allowed to attend the entire hearing. This came after nearly two weeks of disagreement over what her status and rights in the hearing would be.

The university had argued she was a witness and could only be in the hearing during her testimony. Maltbia argued she was the victim who should have the same access to the hearing and information as Coffie, and cited university rules that give accusers in sexual assault cases the same rights of notification as the accused.

Maltbia said she was pleased with the university’s change of heart but believed it was motivated by calls from The Daily News regarding the university rules on the matter.

“I tried to make them see it several times,” she said of the rules. “It shouldn’t have taken all that.”

Comer said the panel had been considering Maltbia’s rights and access since being formed last month. Ultimately, it decided the rules were ambiguous and factored federal law and the interests of both students into its decision-making process.

Maltbia can be present during all the proceedings, but the panel would continue to study the university’s policies to determine the nature of her participation. Among the issues to be decided would be whether Maltbia can cross-examine witnesses, Comer said.

Nelson said Maltbia was irrational, hounding UTMB officials and secretly recording the conversations.

“She has gone above and beyond anybody who is right-thinking,” he said.

On Feb. 6, someone made copies of Coffie’s indictment and posted them all over campus, Nelson said. He said only two people had examined Coffie’s file recently — a newspaper reporter and a person matching Maltbia’s description.

“I think that’s pretty ridiculous,” he said. “My client is very upset about them being put up all over the place. It’s really unfair.”

Maltbia denied circulating the indictment, which she said she was told appeared on campus earlier in the week.

“I didn’t do it,” she said. “I don’t know who did do it.”

Maltbia said she did take a tape recorder into a meeting with Thomas to preserve a record of the conversation. Maltbia said she had become concerned that UTMB officials had divulged to Coffie’s attorney that she had asked whether he had been on campus.

In the meeting, Thomas said she had told Coffie to come to campus one day in December, in apparent violation of the emergency order, to drop off books he had previously borrowed from her. Thomas said she did not believe it was a violation of the protective order because Maltbia was not on campus at the time.