On May 9, 2023, after only three hours of deliberation, a jury decided that former U.S. President Donald Trump had defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll by denying he had sexually assaulted her in the mid 1990s. At the conclusion of the civil proceeding, the jury agreed that Trump was liable both for sexually abusing Carroll and for defaming her. They declined to hold Trump liable for rape, however.
According to The New York Times, the judge in the case, Lewis A. Kaplan, said that "for the jury to establish that Trump raped Carroll, she had to prove that Trump engaged in sexual intercourse with her, and that he did it without her consent." He said that "sexual intercourse includes 'any penetration of the penis into the vaginal opening.'"
While a significant victory for Carroll, viral headlines or tweets in some cases misrepresented the verdict as one in which Trump was "found guilty of sexually assaulting Carroll," and that resulted in Trump becoming a "a convicted sexual abuser."
Terms like "found guilty" and "convicted" are reserved for criminal cases. This case, which centered around defamation, was a civil proceeding to decide the outcome of a lawsuit against Trump filed by Carroll. These cases do not determine guilt, but do determine "liability" for certain actions. Civil cases do not impose jail time or other criminal penalties, and as such require a different standard of proof:
Crimes must generally be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt," whereas civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof, such as "the preponderance of the evidence."
The term, "the preponderance of evidence," refers to how it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way.
Because Trump was not convicted of a crime, it is not accurate to say that he is "a convicted sexual abuser." Instead, it is accurate to say that a jury unanimously decided that it was more likely than not true that Trump sexually abused and forcibly touched Carroll, and as such, her defamation claim was valid.
The jury answered "No" to the question "Did Ms. Carroll Prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that Mr. Trump raped Ms. Carroll," but answered "Yes" to that same question asked regarding the claims that "Mr. Trump sexually abused Ms. Carroll" and that he "forcibly touched" Carroll.
Trump's denial of these facts in an October 2022 Truth Social post, the jury further decided, more likely than not, was knowingly false and made with actual malice, making Trump's statement defamatory. Carroll described the assault in detail in court, as reported by the New York Times:
Ms. Carroll said Mr. Trump asked her to help select a gift for a female friend. "I love to give advice, and here was Donald Trump asking me for advice about buying a present," she said.
She described to the jury how they went to the lingerie section and stumbled upon a gray-blue bodysuit. Mr. Trump directed her to "go put this on," she said. She declined and told him to put it on instead — banter that she described as "jesting and joshing."
Then, she said, Mr. Trump motioned her inside the dressing room, immediately shut the door and shoved her against the wall.
Ms. Carroll said Mr. Trump used his weight to pin her and pulled down her tights. She grew emotional as she spoke. "I was pushing him back," she said, adding, "I was almost too frightened to think."
"His fingers went into my vagina, which was extremely painful," Ms. Carroll said. Then, she said, he inserted his penis.
Ms. Carroll said she used her knee to push Mr. Trump away and fled. The event had lifelong consequences, she said: "It left me unable to ever have a romantic life again."
The jury awarded Carroll $5 million dollars in damages and punitive fees. Trump said he will appeal.