Former Vandy coach James Franklin testifies, changes story in rape case

Tony Gonzalez
Former Vanderbilt Commodores head coach James Franklin points against the Florida Gators last season.

Former Vanderbilt University football coach James Franklin changed his story Wednesday about whether he had seen a video of what police say was a sexual assault on a student by four former football players in June of 2013.

Franklin, testifying via Skype during a pre-trial hearing for four former players facing rape charges, said he gave players the impression he had seen the video to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

"I spoke as if I had seen the video because I was angry and upset and didn't want to water down the message to them," said Franklin, now the head coach at Penn State University.

Franklin said he had not then — and still has not — seen any video evidence, a change from what he has said before.

"Coach Franklin: Did you lie?" asked defense attorney John Herbison.

"No sir," Franklin said.

In one of the most dramatic days in court so far, Vanderbilt officials and police detectives painted a starkly different picture about the rape investigation than how two former players described it in court filings that prompted the all-day hearing in front of Judge Monte D. Watkins.

One of the former players, Brandon Vandenburg, took the stand to say he was threatened and felt like he had no choice but to answer questions from police.

Vandenburg and three other former players stand charged with raping an unconscious 21-year-old student in a campus dormitory on June 23, 2013. In advance of a tentative Nov. 3 trial, defense attorneys for two of them — Vandenburg and Cory Batey — came to court to try to keep statements that the men gave to university officials out of trial.

The hearing, which resumes Thursday morning, also revealed more about what university officials knew, and when, and how those officials, campus police, and city police interacted during the investigation.

Vanderbilt dean testifies

Defense lawyers tried to show that university officials unlawfully questioned multiple players without attorneys present while knowing that the situation was headed toward a criminal investigation — acting, in essence, like police.

But Gerald Black, an associate dean who oversees student misconduct hearings, testified that he hadn't spoken to Metro police before interviewing nine student-athletes on June 25, two days after the incident.

"Mr. Black knew there were criminal implications in this investigation," said Worrick Robinson, defense attorney for Batey. "He knew all his statements were going to be turned over to Vanderbilt police department, at a minimum."

Black said that while student policy violations can overlap with criminal law, his role was limited to deciding whether university punishment was appropriate. The on-campus disciplinary procedure led to expulsions for the four players before they were indicted on multiple counts of aggravated rape.

Black said he turned over recordings of student statements to university police, who then shared them with Metro police.

Questioned by another defense attorney, Fletcher Long, Black also said the university doesn't report all crimes to police if they can be handled through university procedures, including some sexual assaults. Those incidents are still recorded for federal statistics, he said.

But the attorney wanted to know just how much Black had seen before he confronted the athletes. Black said he had reviewed surveillance video showing the unconscious female victim being carried into Gillette Hall, and being photographed in a compromised position by one player.

"This was going to be reported to police, wasn't it?" Long asked.

"It ultimately was reported to the police," Black answered.

James Franklin testifies

The former head coach testified via a Skype video feed for less than 15 minutes, recounting his role in the days after officials discovered the disturbing images on a dorm surveillance camera that brought the incident to light.

Franklin said he was called while on vacation in Seacrest, Fla. and returned quickly, following university legal staff orders to "stay out of it."

He held one team meeting to announce the problem and was later approached by players in his office. He said he didn't threaten them with sanctions or loss of scholarships, as the defense had suggested in prior filings.

"I told them they better be honest, they better tell their parents, they better take this seriously, they're going to be dealing with this for the rest of their lives," Franklin said.

Vandenburg took the stand for an hour, providing his account of conversations with athletics department officials, campus police and city police on June 26 and 27. He said he was threatened and felt compelled to talk without an attorney present.

"I could lose my scholarship, my academic standing, pretty much everything I had at Vanderbilt," Vandenburg said officials told him.

Vandenburg said university officials "told me I could not leave until I answered every single question."

Testimony from police detectives Michael Shreeve and Jason Mayo did not match Vandenburg's account. They said there hadn't been any efforts to intimidate. In an audio recording played in court, the detectives explained that Vandenburg was not under arrest.

"You are not under arrest and you do not have to speak with me," the detective said. "The door is closed for privacy only, it is not locked."

Vandenburg said he was already suspended from the team when Associate Athletics Director Kevin Colon told him he could get back on by answering questions. He said Franklin spoke similarly.

But Franklin and Colon testified that they never made threats or talked about scholarship sanctions.

Other motions

Robinson, who represents Batey, pushed for prosecutors to provide precise indictments as to whom they believe committed each specific assault in the early hours of June 23.

"You have the allegation of four people acting in concert," Robinson said. "You have numerous, numerous photographs. But, your honor, the photographs don't necessarily, or did not match up with, the counts in the indictment."

The judge cleared the courtroom for about an hour to hear testimony specifically involving the victim, which is protected under the state's Rape Shield Law.

When the hearing resumes Thursday, the judge still has to hear Robinson's argument that Batey's case should be separated from Vandenburg's, which could change the trial date. Like Vandenburg, Batey is asking to block statements he made to campus officials and police, and information obatined through a search warrant.

The two other defendants, Brandon Banks and Jaborian Mckenzie, have already separated their trials, with attorneys anticipating deals with prosecutors in return for testimony. All four are each charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. Vandenburg also is charged with one count of unlawful photography and tampering with evidence.

Tony Gonzalez writes for The (Nashville) Tennessean.