Wednesday 5 December 2012 - Filed under Uncategorized
Toward the end of my undergraduate career I interned with two other students at the district attorney’s office in a semi-urban county of Tennessee. We were there to help out in whatever ways the district attorney thought we’d be useful, and being chosen for the internship was a privilege. All of us either had aspirations of going to law school or were seriously considering it. Some days we would help out with the General Sessions docket. Most days we spent preparing for a significant cold case murder trial. At one point, I spent two days cleaning and organizing the attorney’s office because I was tired of hearing, “I know I’ve got that somewhere…”. About a third of the way into my internship, a conversation between me and the district attorney about a police investigation ended in a disagreement. He was a former police officer (in fact he had served with my cousin who had molested so many of the women in my family and used his position to cover it up) and he didn’t appreciate my defense-oriented perspective. The next day I was moved to chaperoning the junior attorneys during interviews with alleged rape victims.
I call it “chaperoning” because my role was to sit quietly and take notes, offer sympathy when appropriate, and be a witness for the attorney to the General about what happened during the interview. It was explained to me that especially since all the attorneys working on rape cases were men and the victims were always women, it was desirable (though not required) that there be a woman in the room for these conversations. There was only one woman attorney in the office, and she worked exclusively on DCS cases. I rarely even saw her while I was there, except when I happened to walk by her office and the door was open. Her caseload made the criminal court look like a vacation. There were a few women working as administrators and receptionists, but there were several good reasons why it wasn’t desirable to drag them in to chaperone on rape interviews.
The interviews were difficult for everyone involved. There were usually several with each victim, spread out over time, during which they were asked to recount in detail their experiences. Occasionally the attorney would stop and ask questions, either to call out indiscrepancies with other accounts or to pose the sorts of questions you hear from defense attorneys in cross examination of rape victims at trial to test their responses. After that was finished, the attorney would give the same “I’m not trying to discourage you, but…” speech he gave to every other woman who walked through the door. In fairness, nothing he told them was false. Justice, if it ever came, would take a year or more, and during that time the trial would consume their life. They might lose friends, partners, jobs. They would certainly be put through the emotional wringer. If at any point they decided it was all too much and they changed their story, they could be charged with a crime of false reporting. BUT! If they were certain that a crime had been committed, the attorney would work right by their side the entire way and they would either win or lose together.
There were women who I believed with all certainty had been raped who walked away from that initial interview without bringing formal charges and never came back. There were women who I believed with all certainty had been raped who went to trial, who suffered mightily all over again for trying to stop it from happening to someone else in the future, whose accusers nonetheless were not convicted. There were women who I had my doubts were telling the truth and had some compelling motives for lying (covering up an indiscretion, revenge, etc.), who nonetheless ignored the attorney’s warnings and filed charges (these women made me just as angry as they probably do most men). Regardless of the facts, the thing that struck me most was how no one really wanted to do the rape cases. If someone walked through the door with an accusation of any other type of assault, it was handled with the fervor of the righteous crusader fighting for truth and justice. Prosecuting a rape case felt more like making a defense, and no one in the district attorney’s office seemed excited about doing that. In fact, the district attorney with whom I disagreed made it clear that he considered my assignment to the rape cases a punishment designed to inspire my gratitude once I was moved back to the cold case murder trial.
After this and other subsequent experiences working in criminal law, it irritates me when people extrapolate broad policy positions from individual criminal cases. I can understand the fascination with celebrity trials. Even though it’s dumb we focus so much on individuals because they act in movies or play sports, as long as these individuals are idolized by the public, then it’s natural we will also care about their crimes. The thing I don’t understand is the Nancy Grace-style elevation of other alleged criminals to the point of celebrity. Why are we focusing on THAT child abuse case? Why are we focusing on THAT murder? These things happen every day in most every community, to the point we’ve developed an entire industry or “system” to deal with it, and the facts in most of these cases are not as weird as many other crimes. So why the particular fascination?
Anyone who’s ever worked on a criminal case will tell you that trials are pageants. It’s not like you see on TV. There are rarely, if ever, any dramatic reveals from the perspective of the prosecution or defense unless the attorneys involved are just particularly incompetent. Not only has the investigation taken place in advance, the information that will be presented has been analyzed and exchanged and negotiated and strategized, because the details of fact and law and procedure matter a great deal when we’re deciding whether or not to take all or a portion of another person’s life away for some misdeed. Anyone who has doubts about the infallibility of the government should be able to appreciate when it’s difficult to convict a criminal. I believe the judge and jurors are the only members of the public with a close enough seat to the totality of this evidence to make a proper assessment (and even so, they can get it wrong). Unfortunately, not only are we as a society more than willing to suppose we know how a conviction should go based on what we hear on cable news, but we also decide to pass laws based on our outrage over a case we probably don’t really understand. The experience of one person is extrapolated to be applicable to several hundred million, even though the moral of the crime (if any exists) probably isn’t what the storytellers on CNN or Fox have represented it to be for the purpose of driving up ratings.
Journalism has a tradition of balance, almost to a fault. For example, when presenting a story on teaching evolution in schools, an ethical journalist must present both a con and pro viewpoint without any bias for either one, even though the con viewpoint is held by a relatively tiny portion of the scientific community. Ironically, that often leads readers to believe evolution and creationism are equally legitimate scientific ideas instead of conveying a more accurate presentation of reality. It’s not just the way information is presented that is a problem, however. It’s also the presentation itself. What do journalists chose to report on? There’s only so much paper to read or air time to watch or blogs to link. Journalists are mediators of our attention, and are therefore deciding for us what’s most important in our community. If that’s not a bias, it is certainly power.
This morning our local news station reported on this story. Since they don’t report on every single crime of false reporting to the police, and since I’d never heard of this particular rape allegation in the news before, I was left to wonder what about it was newsworthy. “Woman claims allegation of rape was merely punishment for a bad online date” might seem humorous to some people, I suppose, and our local news media is certainly not above spending time on stories because they enjoy irony more than substance. When I read that headline, though, I couldn’t help but think of the women who I believed had been raped who nonetheless decided that the pursuit of justice was a more terrible burden than letting their attacker go free. Was she one of those, or was she merely someone who is now reaping the consequences of dishonesty and bad judgment? If the latter, is the purpose of the story to make men who are unjustly accused of rape feel better? Is it a warning to other women who might dishonestly throw around allegations of rape? Is it yet another example of how our local culture tells rape victims to just drop it and move on, to the point of criminalization of rape reporting? Maybe there is no moral intended. Maybe there is, and I’ve missed it completely. WKRN used their voice to help shame a woman who had sex and regretted it, though, and that makes me wonder.
2012-12-05 » admin