- Identical twins Kayla and Kellie Bingham’s school has accused them of cheating on a medical exam.
- They had given up on their dream of becoming doctors because the prosecution had ruined their reputation.
- The twins won a lawsuit after a psychologist said their special ‘intertwining’ made them innocent.
In the fall of 2016, identical twins Kayla and Kellie Bingham, who were studying at the Medical University of South Carolina, walked into their favorite haunt in the college town of Charleston.
They saw that many of their comrades were there. Kayla told Insider that the students looked at each other and nudged each other.
“It happened everywhere we went,” Kayla said. “People were talking about us and we were getting a cold reception.”
“It got to the point where we had to order delivery because we couldn’t go to the restaurant anymore,” she added.
The sisters had been ostracized because MUSC called them “cheaters”. The medical school had claimed that the similar grades they got on an important exam were more than just a coincidence.
“It was devastating,” Kellie said of the charges. “We both knew we had done nothing wrong.”
A jury rules that the medical school defamed the identical twins
The twins have finally cleared their names after six years of torment. They won their libel suit 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 the twins had 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 were blocking their view.
Two weeks later, the faculty formally accused them of cheating.
“My mind was racing,” Kayla said of her honor roll appearance. “I was sobbing and in disbelief that this was happening to us.”
She continued, “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 believed the school would withdraw the claims.
Kellie told the board that their answers have been very similar since first year. She said they got grades within a fraction of a point of each other in high school. Their SAT scores were identical. They had obtained the same score when they had taken tests on different days and in different places.
The board told the sisters that a teacher raised the alarm after remotely monitoring the results of the whole class. He suspected that the twins had collaborated.
He had told an invigilator to “keep an extra eye” on them as the examination continued. The supervisor reported that she noticed that the Binghams nodded repeatedly as if exchanging signals. She said we pushed her chair back. She said one had “turned over” a sheet of paper on the table so the other could see it.
Students became the target of gossip and recriminations on campus and around town
The women, who were 24 at the time, maintained their innocence. “We were just nodding a question on our own computer screens,” Kayla said. “There was no signage,” she said, adding that they “never looked at each other.”
She told Insider that people 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 show regular, familiar behaviors in an exam,” Kayla said.
Kayla told the council that the cheating allegation was “ridiculous”. She told Insider that the sisters don’t have “twin telepathy” or a “secret language.” She added, “we don’t feel each other’s pain or anything like that.”
But the twins were found guilty. They appealed to the Dean and were cleared of the charge after an excruciating wait of a week. “We thought it was gone,” Kellie said, noting that they had “worked really hard” and “wanted to get back” to their studies.
But the damage was done and the word leaked. “These mumbles and rumors went around campus about how academically dishonest we had been,” Kellie said. There was gossip and recriminations. Peers targeted them on social media and discussed them on community blogs. Media reported the case in states as far apart as California.
The sisters told Insider that their peers universally avoid them. They said people refused to talk to them, including a friend they had known for a decade. They said they were “not invited” to two weddings. A bride-to-be sent them a “generic sounding” email. Another, who had sent them a save-the-date card, never followed up.
“We were two of the most social people on campus, knowing everyone in our medical class as well as other classes,” Kayla said.
“We didn’t sleep, we lost weight, gained weight, lost weight,” Kayla said.
They retired from MUSC in September 2016. Kayla said they left, “on the Dean’s recommendation, due to his hostility”.
Kellie said she was devastated when they were forced to give up their medical careers. “Honestly, it killed me,” Kellie added. “I dreamed of being a doctor since I was little – Kayla and I wanted to help people.”
They filed their complaint in 2017.
“We knew the truth,” Kayla said. “We weren’t going to turn around and let our reputation be ruined.”
She continued, “the first thing we had to do was clear our name.”
“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation,” she said.
The siblings became lawyers – not doctors as they had dreamed
The sisters have become even closer. “We relied on each other,” Kayla said. “We came together with the decision to fight – and we did.”
They decided to give up their medical ambitions and go to 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 theirs.
“We never wanted anyone else to have to go through what we went through again,” said Kayla, now 31. “We changed paths so we could at least try to make sure people don’t have to endure what we did.”
The case took five years to go to trial in Charleston. The sisters’ attorney presented their school records to the jury. They showed how they had obtained identical or almost identical marks in the exams they had taken in the past.
A professor from their college before law school wrote in their defense. He said in a letter that they submitted the exact same answers – some right, some wrong – for an exam he supervised in 2012. They were seated at opposite ends of the class, the professor wrote. He said it would have been impossible for them to collaborate.
Nancy Segal, a psychologist specializing in behavioral genetics and the study of twins, testified in court. She said 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 tight intertwining” of twins. She said complaints of cheating against twins are “common” in academia.
“They’re genetically predisposed to behave the same way,” Segal said. “They were raised the same way and are natural partners in the same environment.”
She told Insider that twins — especially identical twins — are likely to have similar tastes, talents, social preferences and academic achievement.
“Identical twins just have this kind of understanding that goes beyond what we usually think of as a close relationship,” said Segal, who has written books on the subject. She noted that MUSC failed to consider “the impact of matching genetic profiles” when they accused the twins of cheating.
Kayla said she was holding Kellie’s hand when the verdict was in. “It was the greatest moment of our lives,” Kayla said of their vindication. “We’ve been living with this for six years and we’ve finally got it all back.”
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