A Front-Row Seat to Justice: Why Taylor Swift's Sexual Assault Lawsuit Victory Matters
By Sophie Schillaci
When the word "victory" comes to mind, so do celebrations and tears of joy.
In the case of Taylor Swift's legal victory over former radio DJ David Mueller in Denver, Colorado, on Monday, the win wasn't quite so sweet. Even as Swift and her mother, Andrea, dissolved into tears in the courtroom, only they can say whether it was the product of grief, joy, relief, release or something in between.
The heart-wrenching moment was four years in the making, stemming from a 2013 meet-and-greet gone awry. On Monday, a silent, stone-faced Mueller was found liable of assault and battery on the then-23-year-old pop star. Her reward: $1 and vindication.
In the week since I began covering this trial, I've heard a lot of water cooler opinions from friends, acquaintances and strangers. Much of that commentary was positive, from praising Swift for her setting an example, to finding humor in her decision to sue for one measly dollar, to awe over her fiery testimony.
But I've heard from others who didn't see the big deal with a butt grab, criticizing Swift for getting litigious over such a seemingly minor offense and going after the little guy, especially in light of all the other things happening in the world right now.
What I've found is that many people weren't fully informed on the case or the details. Key among them: Swift never asked for any of this.
And, yes, the tale of Mueller vs. Swift is a complicated one -- so here's the story, in non-legal terms, and here's why it matters that a jury in a civil case ruled in her favor.
On June 2, 2013, in Denver, Colorado, Swift participated in a series of meet-and-greets with fans and local radio employees prior to taking the stage at the Pepsi Center on her Red Tour. During one fan meet-and-greet, Swift met then-KYGO-FM morning host Mueller (aka "Jackson" from the "Ryno and Jackson" show) for the first time. By her account, he and then-girlfriend Shannon Melcher (also a KYGO employee) appeared to have been drinking. Mueller informed Swift that he worked in radio, she thanked him, and the trio posed for a photo. That's when -- Swift, her bodyguard and her photographer all testified to witnessing -- Mueller, a virtual stranger, reached his hand under Swift's skirt, grabbed her "bare a**" (Swift's words in court) and grinned widely for a photo.
To be specific: Swift's lawyer, Doug Baldridge, referred to it as a "s**t-eating grin" in his closing arguments.
Stunned, Swift in court said she "lurched" away -- towards Melcher -- with a mechanical smile frozen on her face. In the moments that followed, Swift said she stared at the ground, muttered an automatic "Thank you for coming," and turned to continue the assembly line of meeting and greeting her next batch of fans.
"This is not something that I wanted people to know," Swift testified on Thursday during the trial. "[It] would have ruined their concert experience, and made them feel really awkward."
When the last fans had left, Swift recalled saying to her photographer, Stephanie Simbeck: "Dude, that guy grabbed my a**." Simbeck agreed and quickly pulled up the photo of Mueller and Melcher, with the former's hand captured on film looking just-so.
Later that night, Swift emotionally confided in her mother about the alleged incident. From there, Swift's mother called on members of Swift's senior management team, including her radio promotions director, Frank Bell, to discuss next steps. Mueller and Melcher were removed from the venue and his KYGO bosses were informed of the allegations. Swift went onstage and performed like a pro.
Two days later, after conducting an internal investigation into the matter and during which Mueller denied all wrongdoing, the then-51-year-old was released from his $150,000 per-year, two-year contract on what was believed to be a violation of his morality clause.
Outside of involving KYGO brass, Team Swift insisted on keeping the incident close to their proverbial vests. The photo in question was never released and the police were never called. (During the course of legal proceedings, the photo was eventually published by TMZ. Both parties have denied leaking the image.) What they tried desperately to avoid, Andrea Swift testified, was allowing that moment to live in infamy, following the singer through future interviews, cruel social media memes and gifs.
Two years later, the situation did go public. In 2015, still without a job and hoping to "clear his name," Mueller filed a $3 million lawsuit targeting Swift, her mother and Bell, and detailing the allegations made against him after the events that night. His point: Team Swift got him fired and tarnished his reputation within the radio industry.
Though the "Bad Blood" singer had previously opted to keep quiet about that night, never filing criminal charges against Mueller, this is when she decided to take action. With plenty of resources to support herself through a legal battle, Swift had nothing to lose and a big point to make.
Swift and her legal team retaliated quickly against Mueller with a civil countersuit, seeking just $1 in damages over her own allegations of sexual assault and battery. Her goal, simply put: to prove a point and to serve as a role model to other women.
You see, sexual assault survivor wasn't a role Swift hoped or expected to be championing, but she donned it fearlessly like a shiny new suit of armor.
"I'm being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions, not mine," she seethed from the witness stand. "I am not going to allow you ... to make me feel like this is my fault, because it isn't."
In the end, Swift's name was completely removed from Mueller's original complaint by the conclusion of the testimonies in civil court. (To explain briefly: Swift never actually contacted Mueller's employers at KYGO, while Bell and Andrea Swift are technically employed by 13 Management -- not Swift.) And in what looked like a bold power move, Swift's lawyer opted out of presenting his own case to defend Bell and Andrea Swift, as well as Swift's counterclaim. Instead, he chose to let the plaintiff's case -- complete with testimonies and cross examinations of all key witnesses -- stand on its own, and move forward with a verdict.
On the sixth day of Mueller vs. Swift, the eight-person civil jury (six women and two men), unanimously agreed that Mueller did, in fact, grope Swift (he was found liable for both assault and battery) and that neither Andrea Swift nor Bell intentionally interfered with his KYGO contract. Their deliberation lasted all of about four hours.
Sexual assault isn't always as ugly or violent as rape. Sometimes it is just a buttbare a** grab. But the feelings of shame, humiliation, fear, rage and every shade in between are no less real for anyone who has been victimized, touched or objectified in a way that they did not consent to. To be perfectly clear, Swift's career as a performer in the public eye does not equal consent to objectification.
At several points during the trial, Mueller's lawyer, Gabriel McFarland, attempted to call into question the immediate response -- or lack thereof -- to the alleged groping. He wondered aloud why Swift still appeared to be smiling in the photo with Mueller; why her bodyguard, Greg Dent, didn't leap into action, even though he testified to seeing Mueller's hand reach up Swift's skirt; why Swift and her team didn't get the police involved.
(Responses, respectively: Swift's smile was frozen; Dent sought a cue from Swift that never came; and Swift wanted to keep the alleged incident out of the press.)
The problem with McFarland's questions, though, is that no one plans or expects to be groped. There's no textbook response to being assaulted. In the words of the singer's testimony: "None of us expected this to happen -- it had never happened before. ... It was horrifying, shocking, and we had never experienced it before."
While Swift's presence was formidable on the stand, with ice in her veins and a focused ferocity in her words, her vulnerability and humanity was undeniable as she cried, hiding her face from McFarland's accusations of fabricating her story in his closing argument.
Again... there's no textbook response to reliving a nightmare and being called a liar in front of a room full of strangers. In my opinion, Swift handled an extremely difficult and stressful circumstance with guts and grace.
In the moments after the verdict was reached, Swift issued a statement via her publicist promising to extend her support to less-fortunate victims of sexual assault. Meanwhile, in front of the courthouse, Baldridge spoke passionately to members of the press about the significance of Swift's $1 victory.
"That dollar is a single dollar and it is of immeasurable value in this ever-going fight for us to figure out what's right and what's wrong and tolerance, whose body is whose," Baldridge told reporters.
"I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this," Swift said in her written statement. "My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves."