By Kaye Burnet | News Editor
Weeks after being released from jail for a crime he never committed, Duquesne student Rex Coughenour is struggling to put his life back together.
Coughenour, 61, was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car Sept. 15 around 1 a.m. after being stopped by police on his walk home to the South Side from Duquesne. His crime? Wearing a flannel shirt in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
“I must have looked like the guy who did it,” Coughenour said. “I think they stopped the first guy they saw in a flannel shirt.”
Coughenour was charged with the sexual assault of a pregnant woman, whom police had found shirtless and bleeding near the Liberty Bridge earlier that night. The victim described her assailant as a white male wearing a flannel shirt, which matched Coughenour’s appearance that night.
However, video evidence placed Coughenour in Gumberg Library at the time of the attack. Both the library and the Campus Market in Towers, where Coughenour stopped on his way home, had video surveillance footage that proved Coughenour was far from the scene of the crime.
“[The police] could have found out that night that I didn’t do it,” Coughenour said.
According to Coughenour, after his arrest, he begged police to talk to the workers in Campus Market, who could support his alibi. Instead, police brought him to the Allegheny County Jail, where guards took his mug shot.
That mug shot still haunts Coughenour.
“In this age, employers always Google you. And now this is what comes up,” Coughenour said. “When you’re going into a jail for the first time you’ve ever been arrested, you’re not exactly going to have a nice smiling face.”
After a month in jail, Coughenour was finally released Oct. 15 when his public defender received a copy of the surveillance tapes and showed them to the District Attorney’s office.
A week later, he received a letter from Duquesne announcing that he had permission to return to school. However, it was too late for him to resume two of his classes.
Coughenour has been a part-time graduate student in the business school for the last five years, where he is pursuing his Masters in Business Administration and his Masters of Science in Information Systems Management. He said his spring graduation plans had to be postponed to make up for lost classes.
But missed class time has not been Coughenour’s only challenge at Duquesne. He said students and faculty still view him with fear because they are only aware of his arrest and not that the charges were dropped.
“People who knew me weren’t the problem,” he said. “They heard what happened and said, ‘That’s not Rex.’ But it’s people that you don’t know, that you see around. You wonder, are they worried? What are they thinking?”
For a week, Coughenour carried copies of the Oct. 22 issue of The Duke with him on campus, because its front-page featured a story about his release from jail.
“It was the first rebuttal I had,” Coughenour said. “The media in general didn’t really retract [the story].”
Coughenour said he received some “really nasty” messages on Facebook, even after his release, and still receives “dirty looks” from people who recognize him from his mug shot.
Less than a week after his release, Coughenour was arrested again — this time, because someone at the University of Pittsburgh recognized him from his mug shot while he was in Oakland.
“It is not just ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” he said. “It’s ‘guilty, even after they prove you’re innocent.’”
Coughenour is considering filing a lawsuit with regards to his arrest. In the meantime, he plans to pursue his hobbies of spending time in the library and reading peer-edited journals on a variety of topics.