“AMERICA’S CULTURE OF PROTECTING RAPISTS WITH HIGH STATUS COMES AT THE COST OF LABELING VICTIMS AS UNWORTHY.”
BY: Neil Low
The recent abduction and serial rape of a sixteen-year old victim in Steubenville, Ohio has caught the attention of the entire nation as well as many other parts of the civilized world—and well it should! Texts, tweets, video footage, and other hard evidence support the fact that members of the Steubenville High School Football team carried a comatose teen from one party to the next for the sole purpose of allowing their friends to sexually abuse, humiliate and ridicule her.
This sick, perverted version of “Weekend at Bernie’s” shows various members of the Steubenville Football team taking turns carrying the victim from house to house, posing her in lifelike and deathlike positions, and discussing how certain members had sexually abused her. It is also believed that some of the young men urinated on her while she was unconscious.
Instead of a posse rounding up the young men and demanding accountability for these heinous actions, many Steubenville residents and fans of the team have channeled their rage toward the hapless victim, blaming her for the attacks, and even suggesting that she may have wanted the treatment she got. A town that should be disciplining and rebuking their own unruly and lawless youth are instead attacking the victim and striking out and criticizing “Anonymous,” a group of international hackers, who leaked the players’ behavior to the authorities, demanded indictments for additional suspects, and then posted the evidence online thus revealing this atrocity to the rest of the country and the world.
As a Police Captain with many years in police work, I am not the least bit surprised by the town’s reaction. I’m angry and frustrated by it—but not surprised. I’ve seen this kind of reaction before. In fact I’ve seen this behavior far too often and in all levels of society. Whether it is a high school football team or a well-known political figure, it all boils down to bullies with a perceived higher status accused of attacking a victim of a lower status. Instead of an outraged insistence on justice, it turns into a persecution of their victim. It’s a disgusting turn of accountability and is in essence a further crime against the victim. It happens so often that there is a term for it. Sadly, anti-rape advocates call this the ‘unworthy victim phenomenon.’
In the present case in Steubenville, the juvenile victim, who was from a nearby town, across the river in another state, was so intoxicated that she did not remember the incident. She had no conscious recollection of the insults and degradation to her body, and only became aware when she saw texts and posts from the prior evening. Outraged and humiliated by this discovery, she and her parents reported the crime. Despite numerous texts, tweets, and online videos, only two juveniles have been charged with sexual assault in Ohio.
Jefferson County Sheriff, sixty-eight-year old Fred Abdalla, stated to the press, “The investigation has been concluded and no more charges are possible.” The finality of his statement is extremely puzzling to anyone who has viewed the texts, tweets, or videos posted by participants/witnesses bragging about their active involvement in this shameful crime. In my opinion, the Sheriff’s remarks suggest there is a concerted cover-up effort in the works, and I am not the only person who thinks this. Many vocal sources, credibility unknown, suggest collusion on several levels, including intrinsic corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interests on the part of many of the authorities involved in the investigation and prosecution of this crime—with many involved having relatives or close friends on the Steubenville Football Team. I believe more charges can and should be filed against all of the complicit players and their close friends who facilitated this horrible crime.
I will go further and say the County Sheriff’s statement also suggests he has a misunderstanding of the law and the judicial process. Given his tenure (according to the website, Abdalla has been the sheriff of Jefferson County for 28 years), I question what expertise he has as a detective or a detective supervisor who would have had active contact with criminal cases and their prosecution over the years. This is the exact kind of case that should be explored by a Grand Jury and/or Inquiry Judge, and the Sheriff should have pushed for such legal assistance.
I understand the Sheriff is most likely exasperated and is hoping this matter will settle down quickly. I am sure he believes the kids have learned their lessons. However, by not impaneling an ad hoc grand jury, he is perverting justice and further breaking down the legal process. His behavior enforces the unworthy victim syndrome and ensures that certain classes of perpetrators are charged and convicted of crimes while others are given a free pass.
As a society, we have got to stand up and demand accountability in all instances; otherwise, we will be forced to continue repeating the same mistake over and over again. Who can forget the famous “O.J. Simpson murder case” in 1994? The misnaming of this infamous murder case after the suspect rather than the victim implies that it was O.J. who was murdered, but that is not what happened—it was O.J. who slashed and killed Nicole Brown Simpson, his wife, not the other way around. She is dismissed, and he is remembered. Shockingly, many people have already forgotten her name but readily remember O.J.’s, because he was a heroic record-setting sports idol, a handsome actor, a television commentator, and a successful African-American married to an attractive, white, “trophy wife.” The case polarized the nation along racial lines, with most whites believing O.J. had indeed killed his wife, while most African-Americans believed one or more of the conspiracy theories proffered by the defense team. The actual feelings were much more complicated than I summarize here, but there was much cheering when O.J. was acquitted in a highly publicized and celebrated trial that was classic Hollywood drama and fodder for gossip magazines for months on end.
Several months after the criminal trial, O.J. was found liable in civil court for the killing of his wife, as well as her friend, Ronald Goldman. The unanimous verdict for both slayings was wrongful death, a civil finding that doesn’t carry criminal penalties.. It would appear that O.J.’s celebrity status saved him from a guilty conviction and the death sentence in criminal court, but it wasn’t enough to protect him from a devastating monetary penalty in the civil case.
Another example of injustice came in the year 2000, when University of Washington star football player Jerramy Stevens was arrested in Seattle for the rape of a nineteen-year old coed. At first, Stevens denied sexual contact with the victim, but then he changed his story to say ‘it was consensual’ when his semen was found inside her body. She had been penetrated both vaginally and analy. A person who witnessed the rape and called 911 with concerns, described the victim as dazed during the observed sexual act. Friends suggested she might have been given a date rape drug while at the party. To the outrage of many, the King County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges against Stevens, stating that it would be impossible for them to prove the victim had not given her consent. This decision was made despite the fact that the rape had taken place in the dark and cold, outside of her sorority, while standing up in the bushes that only partially concealed her from public view.
The victim later filed a civil lawsuit, and although the terms of the $300,000 settlement were not readily disclosed, The Seattle Times learned of and published the details. Detectives, whom I know were involved in the case, expressed their frustration with the preferential treatment they felt Stevens had been given by the Prosecutor’s Office. Once again, high status seemed to be enough to get Stevens off criminal charges but not enough to protect him from severe monetary penalties.
In my forty-five years in Law Enforcement, I have commanded almost all of the major functions within my department, including: Homicide and Violent Crimes, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Internal Affairs, Ethics, Advanced Training, Metropolitan, and the Night Duty Commander. I have a keen eye for watching arrests, trials, and listening to attorneys arguing their causes. All too often, in cases involving women as victims, I have seen the defense counsel launch a series of attacks while on the courthouse steps. A defense attorney will first protest his client’s innocence and act as if he is outraged by the state’s prosecution. He then vows vigorously to challenge the “spurious” charges, because this is his moment to advertise his skills. And finally, he begins to disparage the prosecution’s case and the credibility of the victim, the witnesses and accusers in an attempt to rally public opinion for his client. This is also good for drumming up business. The ground work has been laid for future sound bites, business cards are exchanged, and then follow-up phone calls are made to reporters that suggest questions about the victim’s own credibility … and her social status.
The defense attorney may infer that the victim has been sexually active, drinks excessively, has a criminal history, or implies that her skills as a mother are lacking, because CPS invariably has a file on her. This type of behavior siphons attention away from his client and the crime at hand while sending the public and the jury pool in a different direction in search of what they can find on the victim. Meanwhile, the prosecutor is restricted by court rules as to what he can say about the case. He’s not able to discuss lab test results, confessions, or testimony until trial, which the defense bar exploits to serve its needs.
In the cases cited above, the community standards and expectations are what frustrate police commanders—the perceived higher status and the creation of “unworthy victim” phenomenon. There is no justification for crimes, outside of self-defense, but public opinion can be swayed in favor of social status and towards those whose standards and behavior meet society’s approval, and then justice is at risk. It is a hideous and pervasive problem.
I am one of those frustrated police commanders mentioned above—the guy you know as your neighbor and talk to over the fence. Like you, I listen to radio news and the occasional talk show, which often provide glimpses into our ever-changing social norms. Following the Jerramy Stevens arrest a radio host described Steven’s victim as a “nineteen-year old coed who had been drinking at a sorority party.” Almost immediately, an elderly female caller told the host: “It serves her right for drinking!” The host asked the woman to please explain, and she said that a proper lady should have known better than to consume alcohol at such an occasion. In her opinion what happened to young victim was not the fault of her perpetrator, but rather a direct result of the young girl’s failure to act according to her own antiquated standards.
Personally, I have an extremely difficult time with comments such as “Serves her right!” or “She had it coming!” No woman has abduction, rape, or murder coming to her, and there is something deeply wrong with a society that thinks otherwise. Society needs to stay informed and not harshly rush to judgment. We need to look more critically at the evidence presented, examine each fact dispassionately like a detective would, and reserve judgment until all the information has been carefully weighed. Only then can we begin to really balance the scales of justice.