The woman who accused “The Birth of a Nation” director and star Nate Parker of raping her while they were both Penn State students died in 2012 at age 30, according to family members and public records.
Her older brother told Variety that she committed suicide and overdosed on sleeping pills. “She became detached from reality,” the woman’s brother, Johnny, told Variety, asking not to use his last name to honor his sister’s wishes to remain anonymous. “The progression was very quick and she took her life.”
The news comes just days after Parker gave interviews last week to Variety and Deadline about being charged with rape as a student at Penn State. He was acquitted in a 2001 trial, but questions about the case persist.
“He may have litigated out of any kind of situation,” Johnny said. “My position is he got off on a technicality.” Other family members reached by Variety declined to publicly comment.
There’s no evidence that the woman’s death was directly linked to the trial. She died at a drug rehabilitation facility, where she was found unresponsive by staff with two 100-count pill bottles of an over-the-counter sleep aid with ingredients similar to Benadryl by her side. “It’s just a horrible life’s progression,” the coroner told Variety. “She was a young woman.”
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In court, she testified that she had attempted to kill herself twice after the reported rape. Her brother said that she suffered from depression after the incident. Her death certificate, obtained by Variety, stated that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse….”
“If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point,” Johnny told Variety. He said that prior to entering college, his sister was an outgoing, popular girl who loved animals and school. He envisioned a career in marketing or media for her. “The trial was pretty tough for her,” he said.
In 1999, Parker, a student and wrestler at Penn State, and his roommate Jean Celestin (the co-writer of “The Birth of a Nation”) were charged with raping the 18-year old female in their apartment after a night of drinking. The woman claimed she was unconscious at the time, while Parker and Celestin maintained that the encounter was consensual. She later said that she was stalked and harassed by Parker and Celestin after she reported the incident. “She was afraid for her life,” her brother said. Both men were suspended from the wrestling team, and Parker transferred to a different college in Oklahoma.
A jury acquitted Parker of the charges, in part because of testimony that he had consensual sex with the victim prior to the incident. Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six months of prison. Celestin appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial in 2005, but the case never made it back to court after the victim decided not to testify again.
The brother believes that if the trial had been held today, there would have been a different verdict. “I think by today’s legal standards, a lot has changed with regards to universities and the laws in sexual assault,” he said. “I feel certain if this were to happen in 2016, the outcome would be different than it was. Courts are a lot stricter about this kind of thing. You don’t touch someone who is so intoxicated — period.”
After the trial, the victim left college before graduating, and received a settlement from Penn State of $17,500. “She was trying to find happiness,” Johnny said. “She moved around frequently and tried to hold a job. She had a boyfriend. She gave birth to a young boy. That brought her a good bit of happiness. I think the ghosts continued to haunt her.”
Looking back, he doesn’t think that Penn State did its part to keep his 18-year-old sister safe. “I must admit Penn State has a horrendous record,” he said, referring to the former football coach at the University convicted of molesting children. “And Jerry Sandusky is just the tip of the iceberg. The University has a history of protecting [athletes].”
The Nate Parker trial is being re-examined now because of the public attention on “The Birth of a Nation,” which Fox Searchlight bought for a record $17.5 million out of last January’s Sundance Film Festival. When the movie first screened, it was crowned as an Oscar frontrunner, but the film’s release strategy has come into question in light of the recent allegations. Sources say that the senior executives at Fox Searchlight are monitoring press reports about the case, and are debating whether it is still possible to release the movie with a roadshow that would have Parker traveling to churches and college campuses talking about social injustice, which one of the conditions of the Sundance sale.
“His character should be under a microscope because of this incident,” Johnny said. “If you removed these two people, the project is commendable. But there’s a moral and ethical stance you would expect from someone with regard to this movie.”
Asked if the movie should be released, he responded: “I think that’s up to the people,” Johnny said. “I don’t think a rapist should be celebrated. It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.”
Parker did not directly speak about the victim when he addressed the issue last week. “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker told Variety. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
In a statement last week, the studio said: “Fox Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. 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.”
Johnny said that the family has tried to move on from this tragedy. “It’s hard,” he said, “seeing my sister’s life slowly crumble while these men are by all accounts relatively successful and thriving.”
“It’s been 17 years,” he added. “We certainly as a family forgive them. I don’t know that [the victim] would forgive them. I don’t think that she would.”
Gene Maddaus and Brent Lang contributed to this story.