People v. Jovanovic

People v. Jovanovic was a highly publicized criminal case in New York. In 1996, Oliver Jovanovic (born 1966) was accused of sadomasochistic torture of Jamie Rzucek, a woman whom he had met shortly before on the Internet. He was convicted in 1998 and the conviction was overturned on appeal in 1999 because parts of email messages between the two had been improperly excluded as evidence at trial. The woman declined to testify during the retrial in 2001 and the case was dropped.

In the summer of 1996, the woman (then a 20-year old student at Barnard College) made the acquaintance of Jovanovic (then a graduate student in microbiology at Columbia University) in an internet chat room. They exchanged several email messages and talked on the telephone. In the messages, Jovanovic mentioned Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs of corpses, and the woman expressed her interest in snuff films. On 22 November the two met for a dinner date and then went to Jovanovic's apartment, where they watched a Meet the Feebles video. The woman later alleged that then she was held there against her will for 20 hours, bound and gagged, sodomized and tortured in various ways. Jovanovic maintained that the acts were consensual. The two exchanged further emails after the event, with the woman describing her state at one point as "quite bruised mentally and physically, but never been so happy to be alive" and "the taste is so overpoweringly delicious, and at the same time, quite nauseating" (using a phrase from Burroughs' Naked Lunch). Shortly thereafter, the woman talked to family and friends about the incident, and filed a complaint with the police. Linda Fairstein, head of the sex-crime division of Manhattan's District Attorney's office, then decided to press charges.

After a jury trial during which the woman testified for six days, Jovanovic was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life for kidnapping, sexual abuse and assault. Shortly before the jury's verdict, Jovanovic had refused a plea bargain offered by the prosecution.

Jovanovic served 20 months in prison during which a fellow prisoner had slashed his throat, causing Jovanovic to almost die. Jovanovic was released in December 1999 when the appeals court ruled that the rape shield law had been improperly applied by the judge in charge of the case. The parts of email messages by the woman in which she talks about sadomasochistic interests and experiences should not have been excluded. In one such message she describes herself as a "pushy bottom" (a submissive person who pushes the dominant partner to inflict greater pain) and in another as the slave of her sadomasochistic boyfriend.

The prosecution unsuccessfully appealed this decision and then again offered a plea bargain to Jovanovic, which he refused. On the eve of the retrial in October 2001, it was revealed that the woman was not willing to testify again, and the case was dismissed with prejudice. Had she testified, she could have been rigorously cross-examined on the contents of her e-mails, due to the lifted restrictions of the rape shield law.

Throughout the trials, Jovanovic had benefited from an extensive and vocal network of supporters; he said that his defense cost about $500,000. After his release, he successfully completed his doctorate degree with honors.

In October 2004 he filed a civil suit against New York City, claiming that the false allegations had harmed his reputation and that prosecutors had had knowledge of previous false accusations of sexual abuse by the woman. The suit also named prosecutor Linda Fairstein, a millionaire from her best-selling crime novels. In August 2006 a Manhattan Federal judge rejected the city's arguments seeking to dismiss the $10 million suit.

Jovanovic received his Ph.D. in 2002. As of 2005, Jovanovic worked as an instructor for computational biology and microbiology at Columbia.

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