Actor-director Nate Parker, Oscar front-runner for The Birth Of A Nation, dogged by scandal over sex assault case

Actor Nate Parker poses at the premiere of his new film Non-Stop in Los Angeles, California on Feb 24, 2014.
Actor Nate Parker poses at the premiere of his new film Non-Stop in Los Angeles, California on Feb 24, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - After a week of intense scrutiny over a 17-year-old rape accusation, including the revelation that his accuser eventually committed suicide, actor and film-maker Nate Parker took to Facebook on Tuesday night (Aug 16) to address the growing controversy.

"Over the last several days, a part of my past - my arrest, trial and acquittal on charges of sexual assault - has become a focal point for media coverage, social media speculation and industry conversation," wrote Parker, the writer, director and star of the forthcoming historical drama The Birth Of A Nation.

In the post, Parker maintained his innocence and said the sex was consensual, but added that he could "understand why so many are concerned and rightfully have questions".

Parker also said he was "devastated" by the news - broken by Variety on Tuesday afternoon - that the woman who accused him and a friend of raping her had committed suicide in 2012. "I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow," he wrote. "I can't tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can't help but think of all the implications this has for her family."

The Facebook post is unlikely to end debate over the case, which comes in the lead-up to the Oct 7 release of The Birth Of A Nation, a biopic about Virginia slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

"The movie was a passion project that Parker funded by raising the money himself, an Oscar contender that plumbs uncomfortable truths about our national past," wrote The Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg. "Now, the movie could get pulled into a different buzz-saw, the one where we debate whether we can separate the art from the artist, and whether it's moral to give our movie-going dollars to creators who have been accused of ugly or criminal acts."

In comments on Parker's post on Tuesday night, people peppered the actor with questions about the incident."Ah, leaving out a few details, aren't you?" wrote Peggy Smith. "Wasn't there another man charged as well? He was convicted...and he shares credits with you on your new film."

That other man is writer Jean McGianni Celestin.

Back in 1999, he and Parker were 19-year-old roommates at Penn State and teammates on the school's Division-I wrestling squad.

One night that August, Parker and an 18-year-old female student went out on a date. After a night of drinking, she ended up at Parker and Celestin's apartment.

What happened next is disputed. The woman, who has not been publicly named, and several other witnesses would later testify that she was drunk, slurring her words and stumbling, according to The Daily Beast. But Parker and Celestin said she was coherent and seemed fairly sober.

Tamerlane Kangas, a friend of the wrestlers' who dropped them off that night, testified that he and Celestin saw Parker and the woman having sex through an open door.

Parker spotted them and "motioned for us to come inside the room," Kangas testified, according to The Daily Beast. "We went out into the hallway and Jean said, 'Let's go inside the room,' and then I said, 'No, you don't want to go inside the room,' and then after that we went back into the doorway and he walked into the room," Kangas testified, according to The Daily Beast. "Shortly after that - or he got undressed and stood towards the head side of the futon and shortly after that I left."

Parker and Celestin testified that the threesome was consensual."I started to touch her and then we all started having sex," he wrote in his statement to police, The Daily Beast reported. When a detective asked him if she had looked at or winked at Celestin before he joined, he replied, "No, it just happened."

"I know, for a fact, there's no way that you did anything or said anything to assure that you didn't want to do what you were doing," Parker later told the woman during a phone call recorded by the police, a transcript of which was obtained by Deadline. "You were all for it, you know what I mean?"

The woman testified, however, that the last thing she remembered was borrowing a T-shirt and falling asleep, according to The Daily Beast.

In a lawsuit she later brought against the school - but not Parker or Celestin - she said the two wrestlers harassed her after she went to police. It was settled in 2002 for US$17,500, according to the Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper.

"They followed her. They called her names. They publicised her name. They tortured her. And the school's response was a slap on the wrist," Sue Frietsche from the Women's Law Project, who helped her file the suit, told WTAE-TV.

Prosecutors charged Parker and Celestin with rape and sexual assault.

When the case went to trial in 2001, Parker was acquitted after it was revealed that he and the woman had previously had consensual oral sex, according to The New York Times.

Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months to a year in jail, a sentence that was later increased to two to four years, according to The Daily Beast. He appealed, however, and his conviction was overturned in 2005 when the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that his defence attorney had provided ineffective counsel, the Collegian reported.

A retrial never happened. "Most of our witnesses were Penn State students, and they have moved not only throughout the country but the world," Assistant District Attorney Lance Marshall told the Centre Daily Times, adding that a judge's decision that prosecutors couldn't use previous testimony left "a big hole in our case".

Celestin's guilty verdict was wiped out. He moved to New York City and became a writer, according to an online biography.

In the 15 years since the trial, Parker has worked his way up the Hollywood ranks. After his acquittal, he transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he became a star wrestler. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in computer programming and began designing websites, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

He entered show business by accident, drawing the attention of talent agent Jon Simmons while waiting for a friend to finish an audition. Parker had no acting experience but showed "a burning ember that will become great talent one day", Simmons told The Virginian-Pilot.

His big break came when he appeared opposite Denzel Washington in the 2007 film The Great Debaters. He has since appeared in a number of other movies, but none of them have drawn the hype or critical praise of The Birth Of A Nation.

Written with Celestin, the film initially looked like it would be Parker's break-out moment. It won two top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was then bought by Fox Searchlight for a record-setting $17.5 million.

As Parker began promoting the film last week, however, he began fielding questions about the 1999 rape accusation.

"The Birth Of A Nation Star Nate Parker Addresses College Rape Trial", ran Variety's headline. "Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish The Birth Of A Nation," wrote Deadline.

"Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State," Fox Searchlight said in a statement to the website. "We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."

As controversy began to mount, Parker told the Times that he "welcomed the conversation" and "never sought to hide" his past.

"It's a serious issue. I get it," he said. "The reality is there is a problem on campuses in America, and violence against women is not taken seriously enough."

At the same time, he described the trial as "the most painful thing I have ever had to experience" and said he didn't relish revisiting it.

"I was cleared of all charges," he told the Times. "We're talking 17 years later. We're discussing a case which was thoroughly litigated. I was cleared of everything. At some point I have to ask myself, 'How often am I willing to relive it?'"

On Tuesday, only a few days later, Variety reported that Parker's accuser had committed suicide in 2012 at age 30. Her brother, identified only as Johnny to protect his late sister's identity, told the magazine that his sister had never recovered from the 1999 incident.

"She became detached from reality," Johnny told Variety. "The progression was very quick and she took her life."

The woman's life had fallen apart after the trial. Once a straight-A student, she dropped out of Penn State and sank into drugs, depression and delusions, friends told The Daily Beast.

After several previous suicide attempts, she was found dead on April 15, 2012. The coroner's report said she swallowed 199 sleeping pills, according to The Daily Beast.

In his Facebook post on Tuesday night, Parker said he hadn't known that the woman killed herself.

"I write to you all devastated," he wrote near the beginning of his post. "I cannot - nor do I want to - ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial.

"While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.

"I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.

"I cannot change what has happened. I cannot bring this young woman who was someone else's daughter, someone's sister and someone's mother back to life... I have changed so much since nineteen. I've grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community - and will continue to do this to the best of my ability.

"All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will. Please don't take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement. I urge you only to take accept this letter as my response to the moment."

It remains to be seen whether the controversy is momentary or comes to define Parker's career.

Johnny said his family had found it difficult "seeing my sister's life slowly crumble while these men are by all accounts relatively successful and thriving". He said he hoped people stayed away from The Birth Of A Nation so as not to "reward" Parker and Celestin.

Other family members seemed torn over the current controversy.

"We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions," the family said in a statement to the Times. "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."

The family asked for privacy, adding that the family now sought to protect the woman's teenage son from "this media storm".