It’s been 10 months since my friend was sexually assaulted, I accompanied her to the police station to report it, and I wrote a narrative about that experience that went viral. Yesterday the assailant was sentenced. This is what happened in between.
I always knew sexual assault is a grotesque act and that it often goes unreported for a host of reasons including being intimidated by uncooperative and victim-blaming police, but seeing it with my own two eyes that day we went to the police station really struck me in a way I’ll never forget. I will never forget the systematic ineptitude, cruelty, and general lack of human empathy that I witnessed from members of the police, medical staff, and almost everyone else we encountered when she shared her story.
But that was only the beginning. In the 10 months since, I learned about another layer of incompetence and cold-heartedness: the justice system.
She dealt with:
- Languid, apathetic detectives missing deadlines and losing information.
- Driving 2 hours to the police station and 2 hours back multiple times for interviews.
- Piles of paperwork and headaches to get reimbursed by the victim’s compensation fund for missed work, therapy, and to replace her brand new jeans that were taken as evidence.
- Having to completely cut off contact with her good friend whose house the assault took place in for fear that the defense would accuse them of conspiring to frame the assailant if they talked.
There were so many upsets and setbacks my friend told me about regularly in the past 10 months I frankly can’t even remember them all but through her narrative, the justice system just struck me as… unjust. She had to deal with the assault. She had to deal with the awful police reporting episode. And then she had to deal with one major life inconvenience and aggravation after the next for months and months on end.
When he was finally arrested, he denied the accusations. He was charged with Unlawful Sexual Contact in the First Degree, Class D Felony, and Sexual Harassment in the First Degree; Misdemeanor. He was offered a lesser plea that would still require him to register as a sex offender, something my friend really wanted so he’d be held accountable and have to continue to answer for what he did, but he rejected the offer and the case was planned to go to trial.
Meanwhile, my friend finalized arrangements she made before the assault to move to Spain for a year and lined up a teaching job. She was promised the trial would be scheduled for before she moved abroad in August. It wasn’t, and she was told if she did not attend the trial (meaning leave her new home, take time off of her new job, fly across the Atlantic ocean, pay $1,300 for a flight, have her life evermore inconvenienced), the case would be dismissed. She bought the ticket back to the US.
The trial was to be open to the public and she encouraged people to come, not only to support her, but so folks could see for themselves how the justice system works, or doesn’t work. I pledged my support, of course, to be with her in that courtroom during the trial.
About 14 days before the scheduled trial date, the assailant changed his story. Whereas before he was saying that he did not do the things my friend accused him of, now he was saying that indeed those things did occur, but that she consented.
As a lay person not involved in the criminal justice system in anyway, this is something that never sat well with me. I never understood hearing about murder cases, for example, that would go something like this:
Killer: I did not do it. I’ve never even met that person. I’ve never even been to that house.
State: Well we have your DNA on their body, your fingerprints at the house, video of you with the victim at the house right before they died, and 6 witnesses who saw you kill them.
Killer: In that case, I did do it, but _____ (insert defense) I’m insane/it was self-defense/ it was kinky sex gone wrong/whatever.
OK, if you have an explanation for your behavior, why deny it in the first place? An innocent person would say, yes XYZ happened, but in ABC mitigating situation (it was consensual, etc). But to deny it, and then when it’s clear you’re caught lying come up with a new story = you’re a liar, and nothing you say for the remainder of this case should be trusted.
But that’s not the way the justice system works. How it works is you can be accused of sexual assault, deny it, and then 2 weeks before trial, offer the following defenses, all of which were defenses to be used in this case:
1. My friend didn’t say the word “no”.
- Correct, she didn’t. But here’s the problem. No is the default setting. Consent must be affirmative. If I walked into your house and took your laptop, I’m thinking you will probably feel like I STOLE it. I’m thinking the factual statement that you’ve never told me I couldn’t come into your house and take your laptop to mean that you consented to this would not please the court. Have you ever told me I couldn’t take your laptop? Nope. So therefore you consented? No. Unless by “laptop” you mean “body”, and you’re in the US criminal justice system, in which case evidently you can take people’s laptops if they never explicitly told you that you can’t.
- Correct, she didn’t say the word “no”. But she did say the following:
- Leave me alone
- Get the fuck away from me
- Get out of my room
- Don’t touch me
- Go away
Apparently that all means “yes”.
2. She showed her friends, and her friend’s friends at the house (of which he was one), photos of nude men on her phone before they went to the bar. This was a signal to him that she was interested in having sex with him.
- She has no recollection of showing anyone nude photos of men on her phone.
- If she did, this was not a sexual come-on.
- If it was a sexual come-on, it could have been a sexual come-on to any one of the people in the room. So any one of the people she supposedly showed the photos to were entitled to touch her? No. This is not enough for consent.
- If it was a sexual come-on to him specifically, her saying “get the fuck away from me” and “don’t touch me” was a clear rescindment of that sexual interest. Anyone can rescind a sexual invitation at any time. She did not show nude photos, and if she did they were not a sexual invitation, but if they were, she rescinded that invitation and he violated that either way.
3. When the group was walking down steps in a single file line out of a bar and the assailant assaulted her from behind for the first of several times that night, my friend doesn’t remember who was walking in front of her, only that he was behind her. So she’s lying, according to his defense.
- Trivial nonsense. Traumatic experiences are far more memorable than mundane ones, thus who is in line behind you, if the person behind you is assaulting you, will tend to stick out in the mind better than the person in line in front of you, who is, you know, not assaulting you.
4. She was sexually assaulted as a child. She is confused, triggered by that memory, and thought he did something when really it was just a flashback to that incident.
- I won’t even dignify that with a response.
5. After the final and most violent of the assaults that night happened back at the house after returning home from the bar, she didn’t leave.
- That was HER place to sleep. Why should she have to flee?
- She wanted to go to bed. She was scared, overwhelmed, just wanted to sleep.
- She lived two hours away. It was the middle of the night. She didn’t think it would keep escalating. She didn’t want to drink and drive. A million reasons. Why is this relevant?
She was pretty outraged when she learned the tactics of the defense. She was outraged that after everything HE did, HER integrity, HER morals, HER decisions would be the ones scrutinized, not his. The prosecutor told her that given these victim-blaming, slut-shaming strategies (and the fact that his wealthy parents secured one of the best defense attorneys in the state), he would probably win with a jury trial. Cases are decided by a jury of our peers and unfortunately for people victimized by sexual violence, our peers were raised in a culture that victim-blames and slut-shames. The prosecutor recommended offering an even lesser charge; Offensive Touching, a class A misdemeanor with no jail time, no sex offender registration, and it’s expunged after 5 years.
She was faced with the prospect of either going to trial, be slut-shamed in front of a courtroom full of people, and have him likely get off scot-free, or accept the plea, avoid the degradation of the trial, and at least have him be held accountable for something even though it’s not everything. She chose the latter on the condition that he would reimburse her for her flight back and that she could read a victim impact statement. The trial hearing turned into a sentencing hearing, and she flew home to the US.
Yesterday, on the morning of the sentencing hearing, I donned my teal CONSENT shirt and prepared for the drive to the courthouse only to find that in my ongoing war with my hometown, my car had been booted. In a panic, I called in a lot of favors, got dropped off halfway there, waited at a gas station for two hours, and found a ride for the rest of the way to the courthouse. I was freaking out that I would miss it when she needed me there but I thankfully made it just in time.
I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to prepare that victim impact speech. I get knots in my stomach thinking about how it would feel to stand up there and address the court about such a violation and disruption of your body and life. I can’t describe it. It was so real, and honest, and raw. Her words were powerful, but her delivery was just so incredibly moving. I don’t know how a human being could listen to her speak and not be touched. People in the courtroom on other business were visibly shaken and moved to tears. I am so proud of her courage.
His attorney spoke next, and asked the judge for a lenient sentence, saying alcohol was to blame for his behavior. The assailant spoke last, and said he was seeking treatment for alcohol abuse, apologized to my friend, and said he understands the gravity and seriousness of what he did. He went from uninvolved, to involved but welcomed, to wrong and remorseful at the most opportune times for his own well-being. Ugh.
In the end, the judge sentenced him to a $100 fine, Level II zero- tolerance probation, plus the money for the flight that was previously agreed upon. Level II probation essentially means he has to check in with a probation officer. If he does something wrong, like get a DUI, he can go to jail for 30 days. He also is supposed to continue seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. Both are for no set period of time, so until the probation officer decides is good enough.
My friend was not particularly happy with the outcome. She found the alcohol abuse excuse to be phony, making himself the victim, and avoiding responsibility and was not impressed with how he had no real consequences. His employer already knows about all this (and continue to employ him anyway) so his professional life won’t be affected. His record will be expunged. He’s fined a whopping 100 bucks. It’s a joke. But she’s glad it’s over and glad she got to speak her truth.
At first, I was happy with the outcome. I know that only 40% of assaults are reported. And of those, few lead to arrests. And of arrests, even fewer lead to prosecutions. And of prosecutions, next to none lead to convictions. Sad to say that even with all the massive failures from top to bottom, beginning to end, this case was more successful than 93% of sexual assault cases. Because of all the flaws and failures in the system, it would not have reached this level without her tenacity, bravery, and relentless self advocacy .
After the sentencing I went right to a different courthouse; the one back in West Chester to get the boot off my car. I had to pay a several hundred dollar fine yesterday in cash on the spot, plus a $100 fine to get the boot off, and then had to set up a $50 a month payment plan for the next 9 months for the remaining fines. It hit me in the two back-to-back courthouse experiences that I paid significantly more for running out a meter and neglecting the subsequent parking tickets than he did for sexually violating another human being. There is no justice.
PS: This guy does some kind of physical therapy work. He literally touches people for a living, and his employer didn’t find it problematic that he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor Offensive Touching? I wish I knew who is employer is.
PPS: Her blog on her journey is here.