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A Crime Victim's Experience: Then and Now

This is a hypothetical description of a case of a rape victim in 1981, based partly on actual composite experiences of victims around that time. It is designed to highlight the “plight of the victim” as described in the purpose of establishing the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime.

This “then” perspective can be compared to a “now” perspective in 2005, based upon the victims' rights and services in your state or jurisdiction. How would she be treated today?

Your response and reflections can complement this scenario with a powerful overview of the many positive changes that have occurred to define and protect victims' rights, and to create victim assistance services, over the past 25 years that would, hopefully, dramatically change the way this victim was treated.

She was a 67-year-old grandmother of seven, recently retired from a rewarding career as a schoolteacher. Just weeks after moving to a small town where she and her husband had built a home for retirement, a 26-year-old man with a long history of assaults against women raped and beat her in her kitchen.

When the police arrived, she was intimidated by the barrage of incredible questions: “Did you know the man who attacked you?” “Did you grant him permission to come into your house?” “Were your doors locked? Your alarm set?” “Did you fight back? How hard?”

Her husband drove her to the emergency room of the hospital where, after waiting two hours, a nurse called out, “The doctor is ready to see the woman who was raped.” Filled with horror and shame, she was put through an invasive examination by a young intern who neither acknowledged nor showed concern for her pain and trauma. When the intern failed to document her bruises and black eye, she suggested that he might want to note them for future reference at a trial. He chuckled, but obliged. He took her clothes, and offered none to replace them, so she wore a scratchy paper dress home, barefoot. Her horror was exacerbated when, two weeks later, she received a bill for $975.00 for the rape examination from the hospital. No victim compensation program existed in her state to cover this cost.

She received no crisis intervention, counseling or victim services because none existed. When she turned to her minister for support, his words of “comfort” were simply that, “It's God's will.”

After countless calls to the local police, she was finally informed that a suspect had been arrested. When she correctly identified him in the police lineup, she went into shock. They offered her a glass of water to help ease her obvious trauma.

She quickly learned through the grapevine of her assailant's long history of violence against women, including rape, molestation of a minor, and several assaults on girlfriends. She was amazed to learn that all these offenses had been plea bargained to misdemeanors, and that he had not spent a day in prison but, rather, served several sentences on probation. She was even more shocked to learn that nothing about his criminal history would be admissible in the courtroom in her case. Around this time, she began to receive anonymous phone calls, threatening her family and her with serious harm if she testified. The police said they could not “prove” the calls came from her assailant, and offered her no options for protection.

The defendant sought a plea agreement to a misdemeanor simple assault. When she learned that the prosecutor was considering this, she was utterly horrified and extremely upset. Were it not for the intercession from a judge with whom she had gone to high school, her case would likely have been plea bargained. The defendant was charged with first-degree rape and third-degree assault.

Sixteen months later – following endless delaying tactics by the defense that were not preventable because she had no right to a speedy trial (although the defendant did) – the trial commenced. The defense attorney ripped her to shreds. His angle was that this case involved “consensual sex,” that she “welcomed” this rapist into her home, and that her black eye and bruises resulted simply from “rough sex” that she initiated. Her entire sexual history – much of it erroneous – was presented as “evidence” because there were no rape shield laws to prevent this.

She testified in front of a room full of gawking strangers, and then was dismissed and told “not to return until the verdict.” None of her family members were allowed to attend the trial, as the defense attorney successfully motioned that “their presence would prejudice the jury.” The news media swarmed her when she arrived and left the courtroom and camped out in her front yard when she refused to comment. Her trauma was reduced in the newspaper to a horrendous “Granny Attacked and Didn't Fight Back” headline.

The prosecutor put forth a strong case, pointing to a wealth of physical evidence that she believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proved forcible rape. She learned of the case's progression and status only through frequent calls to her friend and lifeline, the kind judge whom she knew from high school.

When the jury returned, she sought any indication of its verdict, but none of the jurors would meet her gaze. “Surely justice will prevail,” she thought as she grasped her husband's hand. But it didn't.

The jury of four men and eight women found the defendant “not guilty” on the charge of rape, and “guilty” on the charge of third-degree assault. Once again, he was sentenced to one year of probation, with no order of restitution or any other conditions that addressed accountability. She was not allowed to submit a victim impact statement, because that right did not exist. She was offered no input into his conditions of community supervision, because that right did not exist. She was offered no measure of protection, because that right did not exist. She received no victim compensation, because that right did not exist.

She was left with only one question: “What about my rights?” But none existed.

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National Crime Victims' Rights Week: Justice Isn't Served Until Crime Victims Are April 10–16, 2005
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