**Warning: this post could be triggering**
Last Thursday, my friend Irene and I decided to attend the sentencing in the case of the West Hartford sexual assault “victim”. We both live in West Hartford and run together in the mornings. I actually run past the “crime scene”on my way to meet up with Irene before we run around Elizabeth Park, enjoying the freedom and energy that an outdoor run brings. I don’t know what exactly we were expecting by going to the hearing last Thursday, but Irene had actually considered bringing her middle school-aged daughter. I suppose we were expecting justice…
Those of us in court last Thursday, including the woman who was raped, her parents and her brother, definitely didn’t receive the justice we sought. The plea deal was insulting and it’s justifications were appalling and made me question where we went wrong. How can an institution that is meant to uphold and promote justice be so complacent? It’s a good thing Irene’s daughter wasn’t there, because I’m still at a loss as to what I would say to her.
During and post college, I was a Sexual Assault Crisis Counselor. I answered the rape crisis hotline, met with women at the hospital after they had been attacked, and went to depositions at police stations. But I never went to court; I never had a case that made it that far. My experiences taught me that rape can happen to anyone, anywhere; but still, I found comfort in the statistics that say stranger rape is rare and that the most common sexual assault is perpetrated by someone the woman knows.
So, when my husband and I moved into a house on Fern Street in West Hartford in 2008, I felt safe. Our home is located next to an elementary school and our front door opens right onto sidewalk lined streets. We are close to the Center and to the parks. On any given morning and throughout the course of the day, there can be upwards of 30 people who pass by our house running, biking or walking.
And then, in a bizarre dose of reality, a woman was raped just three doors down from my house on a fall morning in 2010 around the same time I would be returning from my morning run and just ten minutes shy of a school bus pick-up at the corner. It was raining that morning…so I had decided not to run. When recounting the story of the “West Hartford rape”, people say the woman was raped in the bushes, but they aren’t bushes. They are hedges in front of a beautiful old Victorian. It became all too apparent that you can learn self-defense or avoid risky situations, but if you get punched in the face unexpectedly during your morning run, all bets are off.
Irene and I heard the rapist was only getting 18 years and we were outraged. Our local shoe store organized supporters to attend the hearing, so we went. But the Judge and Prosecutor made it clear from the beginning that they would not be reconsidering the plea. The rapist would serve concurrent sentences. He would serve 15 years for a prior burglary at the same time he serves 18 years for first degree sexual assault and unlawful restraint. The strangulation charge was dropped, so the rapist was getting an extra 3 years on the burglary for raping this woman.
The Judge and Prosecutor explained to the “victim”, and us, that she was not unique. They told us that women are raped all the time, giving examples of instances they identified as worse than her rape, and that most of the rapists walk out of court free men. The Judge was condescending at best and the Prosecutor was rude and defensive. I’m still not entirely sure what the Prosecutor was defensive of, but with the amount of rape cases she mentioned losing, I could see why she might be defensive of her job.
I believe most of us in court were aware that rapes happen all the time. That’s why we were there. This brave woman was standing up to her attacker and asking the Judge to set a precedent that rape will not be tolerated. And she was told to shut up and sit down, that her case would be difficult to try, and that she might not understand it now, but it would be easier this way.
I couldn’t make it out of the court room fast enough and still I didn’t make it to my car before I began crying. There I was, a grown woman weeping on the sidewalk as people drove past me on their way home from work. Every time I thought of her brother or the way the Judge spoke to her in front of her parents, I would sob. What if that were my brother sitting there or my children or any of the women I meet and speak to on a daily basis? I always thought that the issue with rape is the fact that there are not enough women willing to come forward. But here she was, a woman willing to face her attacker with the support of her family and community and still, it wasn’t enough.
That’s where I’m at a loss, because that can’t be it. I can’t tell my friend’s daughter that there is no recourse. I firmly believe at my core that we have the power to impact society and we can do so by demanding that our institutions try harder. I don’t care if the case will be hard to try…then try harder. And keep trying until it’s safe for this woman, and Irene’s daughter, and my daughter and all of our children to enjoy a morning run.
In this case you have a “victim” who is willing to testify, DNA evidence linking the rapist to the crime, and as the “victim” pointed out, a crime committed in a school zone. We had a moment in time to make a difference, and the Prosecutor and the Judge took it away from us, against our will. But that isn’t the end of this story. This amazing woman who was brave enough to stand up to her attacker and question a decision she disagreed with has lit a fire in those of us in court last Thursday and I hope she will do the same for you. Enough is enough. We need to prosecute like we mean it for ourselves and our daughters.