A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion
By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: December 21, 2020
The intercom boomed in the predawn hour of Hell Week at the Virginia Military Institute, and a group of upperclassmen slammed open the doors to the freshman barracks rooms. It was time for a morning run. Rafael Jenkins, a prized VMI basketball recruit, said he threw on his gym clothes and hydration pack, then grabbed his "Rat Bible," a booklet of campus rules, rituals and history.
As the 19-year-old cadet waited in the hallway to use the bathroom that August day in 2018, the group of upperclassmen shouted more orders.
Sound off, they yelled.
Jenkins and the other first-year "rats" at the nation's oldest state-supported military college knew what they had to do. They had to open the Rat Bible, flip to the page listing the 10 VMI students killed fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of New Market and shout the full names of the slain cadets, their ranks and home states.
At first, Jenkins, who is Black and Hispanic, chanted their names softly. He'd yelled them earlier in Hell Week — VMI's grueling initiation for new students — to avoid confrontations, but now the ritual seemed too racist to countenance. Why, he thought, should anyone glorify those who fought and died for slavery? So, he chugged from his hydration pack, assuming the upperclass enforcers wouldn't stop him from drinking water.
Then a White sophomore Jenkins didn't know saw what he was doing. The cadet got up in his face and said firmly into his ear: "Jenkins, if you don't sound off, I'm going to lynch you . . . and use your dead corpse as a punching bag."
"I looked at him, and then he looked at me, and his eyes got real big," Jenkins recalled, describing the incident publicly for the first time. "Then he took off."
The threat shook Jenkins, and two years later, its public disclosure would shake VMI, which is now being investigated for what Virginia's governor called a "clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism."
Jenkins didn't know his assailant's name. But the White sophomore would soon face one version of VMI's student-run justice system. And by the end of the 2018-19 academic year, Jenkins himself would confront a more severe version of that system — one that expels Black students at a disproportionately high rate, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.
In a statement, VMI's interim superintendent, Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins — the first African American to lead the school in its 181-year history — said Black students are not targeted for dismissal. "Our focus is on making the system fair to any accused cadet, regardless of race or gender," Wins said.
But it didn't feel that way to Jenkins. The son of a Citadel graduate, he said he and his parents knew he might encounter racism at VMI, where just 6% of 1,700 cadets are Black and about 8% are Hispanic. But not like this.
He wanted to play Division I basketball in college.
"Raf" Jenkins, who'd scored more than 1,000 points as a point guard for the United Faith Christian Academy Falcons in Charlotte, had helped lead his team to the semifinals of North Carolina's independent school state tournament.
His unimposing height — just shy of 6 feet — fated him for the NCAA Division I's smaller conferences. Some of Jenkins's top suitors, such as Northern Arizona University or Stetson University in Florida, were settling on other point guards. Still, Jenkins's name and highlight clips were circulating widely. The teen in a No. 3 jersey with a taper fade haircut could splash three-pointers or float through the lane for an easy layup.
In March 2018, an assistant basketball coach at VMI called.
Jenkins was familiar with the school. His father, Jamie Jenkins, had played point guard in the mid-1990s for its chief rival, The Citadel, another military college in Charleston, S.C. Growing up, Jenkins had attended multiple Citadel games, some against VMI. Distinct from the federal service academies, they are among the country's six senior military colleges that offer a Corps of Cadets, a strict military training program and the option to commission into the armed services after graduation.
That spring, Jenkins made his first official visit to the Lexington campus. One stop on the tour was VMI's student barracks, the castlelike gothic dorm on the Parade Ground.
Jenkins walked past a bronze statue of a man clutching a sword. It was, he'd learn later, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, a VMI instructor and enslaver of six people who'd helped defend slavery during the Civil War. VMI — the last public college in Virginia to integrate in 1968 — honored other enslavers as well, though Black athletes being recruited by the school were rarely aware of that history.
Later, Jenkins worked out with coaches in Cameron Hall, where he said he aced his drills.
"VMI was the first school that needed me and liked me for who I was," said Jenkins, who wanted to play professionally overseas, like his dad had done in New Zealand, then become a sports psychologist.
Shortly after he committed to VMI, the school's basketball Instagram and Twitter accounts celebrated the news, posting a montage of photos of Jenkins playing in high school games.
"Welcome to the family!" the posts announced.
One issue emerged before Jenkins enrolled. The ACT flagged his test score. The company said it found an unusually high number of identical responses on his answer sheet to that of another person in the same room. The probability of the similarities due to chance was "very small," the ACT said.
But that test-taker was sitting six feet behind Jenkins with a person in between, according to ACT documents provided by the Jenkins family. Jenkins was also in the first row, right near the proctor. When Jenkins protested, the testing site coordinator wrote a letter on his behalf, declaring "no suspicious activity" in the room and that the proctor had not issued any "irregularity report."
VMI, after considering the incident, allowed Jenkins to come, the family said. But it wouldn't be the last time Jenkins's integrity would be questioned.
After the White student menaced him, Jenkins said, he felt frightened and helpless. As a rat during Hell Week, he couldn't use his cellphone and didn't know whether he was allowed to speak to upperclassmen unless they spoke to him first.
A day or two later, when Jenkins and fellow rats were finally allowed turns on a school phone, he called his parents and told them about what had happened.
"He said what?" demanded his father, Jamie Jenkins, a medical sales specialist. "Who have you told? Who overheard this?"
His mother, Cindy Mercado-Jenkins, who is Puerto Rican, wanted to drive to VMI and pull him out of the school.
"I felt crippled," she said. "I have a Black husband and a Black son who was being threatened with a lynching — at a school in the South."
But Jenkins didn't consider leaving VMI; he'd just gotten there and was too excited to play basketball. The next month, like every freshman, he participated in the reenactment of the charge across the New Market Battlefield, in honor of the VMI cadets who fought and died there in 1864. Jenkins, who walked instead of running up the field, considered the event racist, but also silly.
"All my other teammates and people older than me had to do it," he said. "You don't want to be that person to cause a fit over something so stupid."
The lynching threat was far more offensive.
His father reported it to the basketball team coach, while Jenkins told a Black senior named Nathan Mumford, who would play a key role in the disciplinary action against him months later.
Soon after VMI learned of the incident, the elder Jenkins said the college's commandant of cadets, William Wanovich, called him. Less than a year earlier, Wanovich himself was involved in a widely publicized racist incident: During a Halloween costume party at the student barracks, he posed with a group of cadets dressed up in boxes as "Trump's Wall," which said "Keep Out" and "No Cholos," a slur against Mexicans. The school released a statement afterward calling the costume "offensive" and "in poor taste."
But Jamie Jenkins didn't know about that. He told Wanovich that his son's assailant should be expelled for such an extraordinary display of racism.
Wanovich said he understood his anger, Jamie Jenkins recalled, but also told him that many cadets had grown up in racist homes, and that he hoped their time at VMI could change them.
In an email, Wanovich disputed that characterization of their conversation. "I believe that I told Mr. Jenkins that like all schools, VMI receives young men and women here with different maturity levels and a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, both good and bad, as they are growing up," he wrote. "I told him that young men and women are sometimes prone to make mistakes. I said that we work very hard to provide all cadets a good experience, leadership opportunities, responsibility and character development, all in hopes that each of these cadets will continue to grow throughout their time here and leave as better citizens and people."
About a week after the threat, Jenkins was ushered inside a conference room in the student barracks. Inside, upperclassmen positioned themselves against the walls. He was shown to his seat at a long rectangular table. To his right, a few seats down, was the 19-year-old who threatened to lynch him.
The Washington Post is not identifying the student because he has not been charged with a crime or named in a civil lawsuit.
"He looked scared," Jenkins remembered.
But Jenkins was nervous, too. He was plunging into VMI's cadet-run judicial system, a netherworld of investigative squads with such names as the Rat Disciplinary Committee and the Officer of the Guard Association.
In this instance, Jenkins was sitting before the student Executive Committee, reserved for serious cases of cadet misconduct. At least one cadet served as prosecutor, and two others served as defense counsel, according to witnesses, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because VMI rules bar them from discussing judicial proceedings. A group of cadets — elected class officials who formed the Executive Committee — acted as the jury. Their job was to recommend expulsion, suspension or other penalties to the administration.
The cadets who had investigated the incident advocated expulsion when they sent the case to the Executive Committee, according to two of them, Sawaar Canady and Tyriuq Trotman, who have since graduated.
At the Executive Committee hearing, the White cadet admitted to making the lynching threat, according to Jenkins, two other student witnesses and a third person familiar with its proceedings.
"He said he got caught up in the moment, and he didn't mean it," recalled Jenkins, who was in the room for only a brief time. "He said he was truly sorry." But to Jenkins, it didn't sound genuine.
"His hands were shaking," said the person familiar with the hearing. "He said he'd never said anything like that before in his life. He apologized directly to the rat."
After deliberations, the White sophomore told The Post in an email, the Executive Committee announced the recommended penalty: a year-long suspension with an option to return to VMI afterward.
Soon, Wanovich summoned Jenkins to his office for a face-to-face with the perpetrator. Jenkins said the student apologized and extended his hand for a shake.
"I just kept my arms to my sides," Jenkins said.
It was the last Jenkins ever saw of him.
VMI's superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, who resigned earlier this year amid the furor over racism at the school, would have signed off on the suspension, according to school regulations.
Peay declined to comment. Bill Wyatt, VMI's spokesman, said the school could not discuss what happened to Jenkins or the cadet who threatened him without a waiver from the young men allowing VMI to disclose their disciplinary and academic records, which it was unable to obtain.
The suspended cadet was eligible for readmission in August 2019.
But the student — whose statistics for one of VMI's sports teams still appear on the college's athletics website — told The Post that he decided not to reapply.
"After being away from the school for a while I knew it was not an environment I wanted to return to," he wrote, "so I never started the reapplication process."
Eventually, the perpetrator, the son of a high-ranking military officer, transferred to a different university, where he is a senior majoring in business and finance, according to that college's registrar. This past summer, he graduated from Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va., according to a military spokesman.
"I wouldn't blame you for assuming that I am a bad person," he wrote in his email. "If that was the only thing I knew about someone — that they said those words to a Black cadet — I'd hate them, too. I think I hated myself for a while. ... the truth is, I am ashamed of what I said and the pain I caused."
It isn't clear whether VMI, which received $19 million in state funds in fiscal 2020, considered the lynching threat a hate crime. According to U.S. Education Department data, VMI reported one race-based "intimidation" hate crime on its campus in 2018, another in 2016, and a religion-based "intimidation" hate crime in 2017.
When The Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records describing the incidents, VMI declined to release them, saying they were not subject to disclosure under federal and state law.
Jenkins was two months shy of finishing freshman year when, one day in mid-March, two upperclassmen knocked on his open door.
"Jenkins," one of them said, "can you step outside?"
The students identified themselves as members of VMI's Honor Court, a group of 12 to 19 upperclass cadets at the top of the campus hierarchy because they wield so much power and operate in secrecy.
Elected by the student body, the Honor Court investigates and prosecutes anyone suspected of violating the school's most sacred oath, the honor code: "A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do."
Any breach results in dismissal. "The system does not recognize degrees of honor," VMI's website says.
Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985, said in his statement that the honor code "is considered the most revered system at VMI. It is instilled and consistently reinforced into every cadet from the moment they matriculate. It is the standard to which every cadet is held accountable."
Jenkins was being placed "under arrest," he was told, for breaking the cherished code. But Jenkins didn't know what violation he'd committed. Or even when. The officers didn't specify.
He knew little about the Honor Court, whose president was once Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, VMI class of 1981. He just knew that anyone convicted by an Honor Court jury is recommended to the superintendent for expulsion. And after every dismissal due to an honor code breach, the school holds a "drum out" ceremony humiliating the student in their absence.
The ritual follows a script meant to instill fear in other cadets: Honor Court members gather throughout the barracks around 3:30 a.m., accompanied by band members pounding drums to wake up the entire student body. The Honor Court's president marches around the courtyard and announces the name of the convicted cadet to the entire corps. The cadet placed "personal gain above personal honor" and left VMI in "shame," the script states. Then comes the final declaration: the expelled cadet's name "shall never be mentioned within the walls of the Institute again."
But even before the ceremony begins, the names of the exiled cadets leak onto Jodel, the anonymous social media app where VMI students frequently post racist and misogynist comments. Drum outs are eagerly anticipated. "Bongos tonight?" someone inevitably asks.
As Jenkins was being escorted to the Honor Court's headquarters, he wondered: Was he next?
He also had to walk carefully because he was recovering from a foot injury.
Shortly after the lynching threat, Jenkins hurt his foot and ankle driving to the hoop in practice. He didn't play one basketball game all season.
At the time of his Honor Court arrest, Jenkins was waiting to hear whether he could redshirt, stretch out his course work, and become a fifth-year senior to reap a full four years of games.
When he finally made it to the Honor Court's fourth-floor courtroom in Shell Hall, the prosecution revealed the two charges. The main accusation: He cheated on a math test — from the previous December. The second: He gave a "false official statement" when he wrote "none" in the section that appears on all VMI tests asking whether students had "Help Received."
As Honor Court officials broke down their case, Jenkins struggled to recall the exam.
A test from Dec. 5, 2018? Why was he getting accused on March 14, 2019?
The prosecution alleged that he cheated off a female cadet, who sat two seats to his right, with no one in between.
But there was no surveillance footage of him sneaking a peek. No other students — nor the teacher, who wasn't in the room — saying they saw him do it.
All prosecutors had was circumstantial evidence:
Jenkins and the female cadet had taken the same test, but some of the questions attached to the word problems on her test were swapped in a different order on his exam. In some instances, questions "b" and "c" on her test were questions "c" and "b" on his test, and so on.
The prosecution's argument: Her answers, although incorrect, were at least "reasonable mistakes" for the questions, according to Honor Court documents the Jenkins family provided. Jenkins, the prosecution argued, didn't read his test carefully and copied some of her answers without knowing they wouldn't correspond to his questions.
"I knew I didn't look over at her test and cheat," Jenkins recalls thinking.
It made little sense to him. They both did poorly on the test, but he scored more points — he got 12 out 45, and she scored 8.5.
The Honor Court scheduled a trial for April. If cadet jurors found him guilty, then the case would be sent to Peay for his review. If he upheld the verdict, then Jenkins would be drummed out.
He could have someone represent him at trial, but not a lawyer — it had to be a faculty or staff member or student.
Teammates told him he stood a strong chance. They cited a star Black basketball player who beat cheating charges shortly before his graduation in 2017. That athlete, Quentin Peterson, who now plays professionally in Denmark, told The Post he was accused of plagiarizing on a rough-draft paper for an English class. Peterson said he inserted quotes from other sources but didn't cite them properly. He figured it was a rough draft and didn't pay it much mind. He was stunned when he was charged by the Honor Court.
"The Honor Court is mostly White. I have recruits who message me, 'How's VMI?' I say, 'If you don't want to deal with racism, don't go there,' " Peterson said. "If they rolled me, I would have sued. I had a lawyer on standby."
Black students at VMI are expelled at a disproportionately high rate, according to data obtained by The Post for the three academic years between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020. Though Black cadets made up about 6% of the student body, they represented about 43% of those expelled due to honor code violations. Twelve out of the 28 VMI students dismissed in those three academic years were Black. Like Jenkins, they played a sport.
When students of color are included in the count, the number of expelled rises to 15, or about 54% of the total, even though minorities made up about 21% of the student population in that three-year period.
VMI turned down The Post's FOIA request for records showing a race and gender breakdown of cadets who were arrested, acquitted and convicted since the fall of 2015. Wyatt, the school spokesman, said the documents "are considered superintendent's working papers" under state law.
But Wins disputed the notion that VMI's honor code system is unfair to minority students. "Since academic year 2015-2016, there have been 63 honor court cases resulting in 55 convictions," he said. "This represents less than one half of one percent of the 10,000 enrolled during this period.
"There are so few Honor Court dismissals relative to the number of cadets that it is impossible to determine if dismissals are proportional or not," Wins said.
He also noted that "the Honor Court does not seek nor solicit allegations, and, therefore, does not target any individual or class of cadet. Allegations of honor violations can be brought to the Honor Court by either cadets or VMI faculty and staff. Once the Honor Court receives an allegation, they investigate whether the allegation might be a violation of the Honor Code. The vast majority of allegations are referred by members of the faculty for violations that occur in the classroom."
In late March, Jenkins's defense advocate, L. Janelle Gornick, an assistant professor in his psychology department, filed a motion to dismiss the charges. She said that though some questions on their exams were swapped, the questions were still nearly identical, with differences hinging on a word or phrase that could have been missed.
"Two students getting the same wrong answer on an exam question is not enough to establish cheating," she wrote. "There is no evidence of one student establishing a number from calculations and another copying it. . . . In many ways, the evidence, or lack thereof, suggests a flaw in due process."
One of the prosecutors in the case was Nathan Mumford, the Black senior to whom Jenkins had reported the lynching threat months earlier.
"It is clear that Cadet Jenkins is the one cheating off of [the female cadet] because his unusual incorrect answers are in response to [her] test questions and not his own," the prosecution argued.
"Motion to dismiss is denied," Peay wrote.
On April 18, Jenkins woke up before sunrise for his trial. In case of a loss, he had to pack up his belongings and be ready to drive off campus immediately. His parents had traveled from North Carolina. But once inside Shell Hall, Jamie Jenkins and Cindy Mercado-Jenkins were barred from entering the courtroom because the proceedings are considered confidential.
Of the eight jurors chosen to consider the case, only one appeared to be Black: Keniya Lee, a senior and a fullback on the women's soccer team. In an interview, Lee, now a Wells Fargo global product manager, said six other jurors were White males; an eighth was a male cadet whose race or ethnicity wasn't clear to her.
When the trial got underway, one witness testified he'd acted as a spy during the test, according to Lee. He was asked to clandestinely monitor Jenkins and the female cadet because the teacher suspected one of them had cheated on a previous test.
The informant, who declined a Post interview request, wrote in a court statement that he'd entered the testing room and sat at a table directly behind Jenkins and the female cadet. He used a blank exam to jot down notes chronicling the movements of both students. He wrote that the female cadet "made no suspicious movements" but that Jenkins "moved quite a bit during the exam, and this caught my attention."
But the spy's notes seem to exonerate Jenkins. For one thing, he said he didn't see Jenkins cheat. He also said the female cadet "seemed as if she was using her arms to cover her work," which raises the question of how Jenkins could have caught a glimpse of her test.
"From my position, I had no clear view of his line of sight and as a result could not see if he may have been looking out of the corner of his eyes in a direction he shouldn't have," he wrote.
Lee said she and other jurors were startled that a VMI teacher had run an espionage operation deploying one student against another. Where was the honor in that? she wondered.
But Wins said VMI "has a very high standard for honesty and does not tolerate those who do not meet that standard. This standard is what attracts many cadets to the school. . . . As for the ramifications of deploying another cadet to observe a cadet taking an exam, cadets believe that those who cheat dishonor their fellow cadets and would rather they not be counted among their ranks."
During the trial, Jenkins said he asserted his innocence. Meanwhile, the female cadet couldn't remember the test from four months earlier. "I do not even recall taking the exam or Jenkins looking at my test," she wrote in a court statement in early April. Reached by The Post, she declined to be interviewed.
When the jury deliberated, Lee fought on Jenkins's behalf.
"Jurors were stereotyping and saying, 'Well, he's a basketball player, and he probably didn't have a chance to study,' " Lee recalled.
Lee felt the prosecutors simply didn't prove Jenkins was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the Honor Court's standard. She was going to vote not guilty.
But after the jury finished, Lee said, the Honor Court told her she was randomly selected as the alternate.
Now Jenkins would need three of the seven remaining jurors to reach the same conclusion she did. Unlike real-world criminal trials, VMI requires defendants to win three not guilty votes to earn an acquittal, not one.
The Honor Court returned with the verdict: guilty on both counts.
Jenkins wasn't told what the vote was. But his case file shows six of the jurors voted guilty, and a seventh person voted not guilty. If Lee hadn't been chosen as the alternate, Jenkins would have earned two not guilty votes — still not enough for an acquittal under VMI's Honor Court rules.
Unanimous jury verdicts have long been considered constitutionally required in federal courts for serious crimes. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that unanimity is required in such cases for state courts, too, and said that non-unanimous jury verdicts were rooted in Jim Crow racial discrimination laws.
At VMI, Wins described a "number of checks and balances built into the system that protects an accused cadet at every turn." But he also said: "All of the cadet governance systems are constantly under review. Our mission is to produce leaders of character and if changes are necessary to deliver on that mission, then changes will be made."
After the guilty verdict, Jenkins walked out of the courtroom and met his parents in their private waiting room. He was exhausted. He changed out of his VMI uniform into civilian clothes.
"My anger would come a few days later," Jenkins said.
The family was told they could appeal their case to VMI's Board of Visitors, Jamie Jenkins said, but they decided not to bother. "He was being railroaded, so what good was an appeal?" he asked.
Jenkins and his parents walked across the street to get in the family car. Then they drove behind the barracks, where cadets loaded up his belongings — his basketball uniforms, cardboard boxes full of books, toiletries, his red VMI cup.
Mumford, now an Army first lieutenant in Texas, said he has no regrets about the Jenkins case.
"It's not easy kicking another Black person out of the school," he said. "But I would rather it be me than my White counterparts. I knew that if I took the case, I'd be fully fair and unbiased."
But in June, Mumford, who also worked as a VMI tour guide, posted an emotional letter on Facebook, criticizing the school's treatment of Black students and his "shame" as a promoter for the school. "I was quite literally paraded around VMI and I know that at their heart they were happy to have a black man to show the public that they weren't actually racist," he wrote.
Jenkins's faculty adviser, Keith Kline, a psychology professor who testified on his behalf, was disturbed by the verdict.
In a college recommendation he wrote for Jenkins on VMI letterhead a month after the trial, Kline said the prosecution's evidence had "gaping holes. . . . To this day, I still feel that it is the thinnest case I have seen in my 14 years [at] VMI . . . and remain baffled as to how a jury of Rafael's cadet peers arrived at a guilty verdict."
Even Jenkins's math teacher, Lucas Castle, who set the case in motion by reporting his cheating suspicions to the Honor Court, said he regrets what happened as a result. It was the Honor Court, he said in an interview, who directed him to recruit a student and plant him as a spy during the exam.
"I didn't care for it," said Castle, who was a visiting assistant professor at VMI and now teaches at North Carolina State University. "When I told other faculty members about the plan, someone told me, 'If that's what the Honor Court tells you to do, then you do it.' Other faculty members were like, 'They told you to do that?' "
Castle said he still thinks someone probably cheated — either Jenkins or the female cadet. But he doesn't believe the punishment was just.
"I definitely hate that he was expelled," Castle said. "I don't like the way this ended."
A few days after he left VMI, Jenkins woke up in his bedroom in Charlotte and checked his Snapchat account. One of his friends in Lexington had sent him a private message with a video from earlier that morning. It was only nine seconds long.
Jenkins played the clip.
His friend had taken a video of himself waking up in bed at VMI's barracks. His eyes were squinting. In the background, Jenkins heard a sound — like sheets of hail raining down. They were drum beats. His expulsion was being announced to the entire corps of cadets. VMI's idea of honor.
Over and over, Jenkins played the clip, the rapid booms shaming him from a distance.
Jenkins reviews a document from his Honor Court case file that shows how the jury voted.
LOGAN CYRUS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST