- Aug 7, 2002
An odd legal victory!
Identical college twins were accused of cheating in an exam by signaling. They won $1.5 million in damages after a jury decided they hadn't cheated because their minds were connected.
Story by [email protected] (Jane Ridley)
In the fall of 2016, identical twins Kayla and Kellie Bingham, who were studying at the Medical University of Southern Carolina, walked into their favorite hang-out spot in the college town of Charleston.
They saw that a large number of their fellow students were there. Kayla told Insider that the students stared and nudged each other.
"It happened wherever we went," Kayla said. "People would gossip about us and we'd get a cold reception."
"It got to the point when we had to order delivery because we couldn't go to restaurants anymore," she added.
The sisters had been ostracized because MUSC had labeled them "cheats." The medical school had claimed that the similar scores they'd got in an important exam were more than just a coincidence.
"It was devastating," Kellie said of the accusations. "We both knew that we'd done nothing wrong."
The twins have finally cleared their names after six years of torment. They won their defamation case against MUSC last month. The jury awarded them damages totaling $1.5 million.
The sisters' ordeal began after they took the exam in May 2016. Kellie said that the twins were assigned seats at the same table. "We were about four or five feet apart," she said. They couldn't see each other, she said, because their monitors blocked their views.
Two weeks later, the faculty formally accused them of cheating.
"My mind was racing," Kayla said of having to appear before the honor board. "I was sobbing and incredulous that this was happening to us."
She went on, "there's no way to process your emotions when you're accused of something you didn't do." Kellie said that, despite the trauma, she thought the school would withdraw the claims.
Kellie told the council that their answers had been highly similar since first grade. She said they'd graded within a fraction of a point of one another at high school. Their SAT scores had been identical. They'd got the same score when they'd taken tests on different days and in different locations.
The council told the sisters that a professor raised the alarm after monitoring the results of the whole class remotely. He suspected that the twins had been collaborating.
He had told a proctor to "keep an extra eye" on them as the exam continued. The proctor reported that she'd noticed that the Binghams had repeatedly nodded their heads as if they were exchanging signals. She said that one had pushed back her chair. She said that one had "flipped" a sheet of paper on the table so the other could see it.
The women, who were 24 at the time, protested their innocence. "We were just nodding at a question at our own computer screens," Kayla said. "There was no signaling, " she said, adding that they "never looked at each other."
She told Insider that people had often commented on their "incredibly similar" mannerisms.
"I never anticipated that nodding at your computer screen could be used against you — and confirmation bias is given when you're showing regular and familiar behaviors at an exam," Kayla said.
Kayla told the council that the cheating claim was "ridiculous." She told Insider that the sisters had no "twin telepathy" or "secret language." She added, "we don't feel each others' pain or anything like that."
But the twins were found guilty. They appealed to the dean and were cleared of the charge after an excruiating week-long wait. "We thought it had gone away," Kellie said, noting that they'd "worked really hard" and "wanted to get back" to their studies.
But the damage was done, and word leaked out. "These mutterings and rumors came throughout campus about how we'd been academically dishonest," Kellie said. There was gossip and recrimination. Peers targeted them on social media and discussed them on community blogs. Media outlets reported on the case in states as far away as California.
The sisters told Insider that peers universally shunned them. They said that people refused to talk to them, including a friend they'd known for a decade. They said they were "uninvited" from two weddings. One bride-to-be sent them a "generic-sounding" email. Another, who had sent them a save-the-date card, never followed up.
"We'd been two of the most social individuals on campus, knowing everyone in our medical school class as well as other classes," Kayla said.
"We didn't sleep, we lost weight, gained weight, lost weight," Kayla said.
They withdrew from MUSC in September 2016. Kayla said that they left, "at the recommendation of the dean, because of how hostile it had become."
Kellie said that she was shattered when they were forced to abandon their medical career. "It honestly killed me," Kellie added. "I'd dreamed about being a doctor since I was little — Kayla and I wanted to help people."
They filed their lawsuit in 2017.
"We knew the truth," Kayla said. "We weren't going to roll over and let our reputation be ruined."
She went on, "the first and foremost thing was to clear our name."
"You take an entire lifetime to build a reputation," she said.
The sisters became even closer. "We relied on each other," Kayla said. "We came together with the decision to fight — and we did."
They decided to forgo their medical ambitions and attend law school. They had very similar GPAs when they graduated last year. They work at the same law firm and want to tackle complex defamation suits like their own.
"We did not want anyone to have to go through what we had been through, ever again," Kayla, now 31, said. "We switched paths so that we could at least try and ensure sure that people don't have to endure what we did."
The case took five years to come to trial in Charleston. The sisters' lawyer presented their records of education to the jury. They showed how they'd obtained identical or near-identical scores in the exams they'd taken in the past.
A professor at their college before law school wrote in their defense. He said in a letter that they'd submitted the exact same answers — some right, some wrong — for an exam that he'd supervised in 2012. They'd been sitting at opposite ends of the classroom, the professor wrote. He said it would have been impossible for them to collaborate.
Nancy Segal, a psychologist who specializes in behavioral genetics and the study of twins, testified in court. She said that she would only have been "surprised" if the sisters had "not ended up with the same scores."
The professor, who founded the Twin Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, told the jury about the "very close intertwining" of twins. She said that cheating complaints against twins are "common" in academia.
"They are genetically predisposed to behave the same way," Segal said. "They've been raised the same and are natural partners in the same environment."
She told Insider that twins — particularly identical twins — are likely to have similar tastes, talents, social preferences, and academic achievements.
"Identical twins just have this kind of understanding that goes beyond what we typically think of as a close relationship," Segal, who has written books about the subject, said. She noted that MUSC hadn't considered "the impact of the corresponding genetic profiles" when they accused the twins of cheating.
Kayla said that she held Kellie's hand when the verdict came in. "It was the biggest moment of our lives," Kayla said of their vindication. "We've been living with this for six years and we've finally had everything restored to us."