February 6, 2014

Presumption of Innocence

On Monday, I had jury duty.

Jury duty is a pain the ass. It's a hassle, it takes all freakin' day, and if you're unlucky a lot longer.

Also, if you're really unlucky, it will give you a lifetime of nightmares.

I've never served on a jury. Every time I get called for jury duty, I spend all day in silence as judges and lawyers question potential jurors about their ability to rule on the case.

The cases are always horrific when I get summonsed. Last time, it was a death penalty murder trial. I wasn't anxious to go back on Monday and find out what new horrors were in store.

I sat in the courtroom as the judge announced what the charges were, and told us we'd all be sworn in to answer about being on the jury.

The charges?

"The defendant is charged with sexual assault by a legal adult (my stomach lurched as I glanced at the defendant, who was probably pushing forty) of a minor child."

The floor fell out from under me.

I looked at him, and tried to feel nothing. After all, it might be my job to presume he was innocent until proven guilty. I couldn't let myself think he'd actually done it.

The judge went on to explain the crime, which was committed four years ago. The victim was now ten or eleven years old.

When this man allegedly raped her (which the judge clarified as penetration of the vagina by the penis), she was barely older than my daughters.

I shook that thought off, too. Because I had to be impartial, right?

Out of the sixty some potential jurors there, thirty were called up to answer questions. I was second to last.

Being second to last, I got to listen to all the potential jurors before me answer their questions.

Before entering the courtroom, we'd all had to fill out a form. Included on this form was the question, "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?"

I had checked yes.

When the judge asked each individual juror about their "yes" answers, most declined. Approximately a third of the women, and two of the men, requested to speak about the matter privately. My mouth dried out. There are only a handful of crimes that, if committed against you, fill you with the kind of shame and guilt that makes it impossible to speak publicly. Not at all like the answers, "I was carjacked," or "I was mugged," or "It was a home invasion and burglary."

No, when you've been the victim of a crime, and you don't want anybody to know about it, that means that being a victim of that particular crime is shameful.

As person after person requested to answer the question privately, I got angrier, and more determined.

Finally, it was my turn. I smiled at the judge, wiping my sweaty palms on my knees and trying to keep my heart from pounding out of my chest.

"Mrs. Grover, it says here you've been the victim of a crime?"
"That's correct."
"What was that crime?"

I looked her in the eyes and kept smiling, trying to keep my voice even. "I was sexually assaulted, and stalked."

The defendants lawyers started scribbling rapidly on their notebooks.
"Did you ever go to court?"
"Were charges ever filed?"
"Did you report the incident to the police?"
"And why weren't charges filed?"
"Lack of evidence, I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"I waited too long to report the assault."
"I see. Mrs. Grover, will you be able to follow the law, and treat both sides fairly in this case?"
I looked at the defendant's lawyer. I didn't look at him. I couldn't.
"I believe so."

Behind me, I heard people shuffling in their seats. Another four hands raised. "I actually have something I'd like to speak to you about in private as well, your honor."

A few moments later, it was the lawyers' turn to ask questions. The defense attorney called my name.

"Ms. Grover, did you interact with the police?"
"Did they leave you with a positive of negative impression?"
"Definitely negative."
I took a moment before answering. "They didn't believe me."

The judge and lawyers left the chambers, calling people in one at a time to discuss their private matters. During that time the rest of us fidgeted, talked a little amongst ourselves. A few of the other jurors came up to me to talk, but didn't make eye contact, didn't say anything that was obviously on their minds.

After the last juror returned, we continued to wait. For over an hour, the judge and lawyers discussed which of us they wanted on the trial, which they didn't.

When the judge returned, one by one she dismissed jurors who had spoken with her privately. Then the man who had announced he worked with the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, working with victims of childhood sexual abuse. Then, at last, me.

And the remainder of the jurors were told to come back in the morning for the trial.

Part of me was relieved. As I exited the courtroom, I finally allowed myself to believe he was guilty. An instant, overwhelming surety, now that I didn't have the obligation to give him the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time I felt a wave of guilt, that I could damn him so easily before his trial.

And then a wave of fury.

Fury, because statistically, one third of every woman in a randomly selected group will have been victims of sexual abuse. And that's what I had just seen in person, in that courtroom. And fury that when a problem is that embedded into our culture, that deeply rooted into what it means to be female, that dangerously ubiquitous, there is no such thing as a fair trial.

Not for the accused, and not for the victim.

When a crime is as common as rape, as horrifically and overwhelmingly common, maybe you shouldn't be able to dismiss all victims of that crime from the ability to be objective. To be reasonable.

Maybe when a crime is that universal, by eliminating everyone who has ever been sexually assaulted or who knows somebody who's been sexually assaulted, all you have left are deniers and apologists.

Maybe that's why so many rapists win at their trials.

Maybe it's not really a jury of your peers when nearly half of them are dismissed right off the bat because somebody did something to them against their will, and they were just the statistical one in that two minute window.

I was furious. I wanted to be on that jury. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be objective, that I could listen to the evidence and see what had really happened.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could maintain a presumption of innocence. That I could hold onto my own emotions and my own experiences and set them aside. That I could look at facts and accept that, according to the law, the words of a victim and the words of an accused man carry absolutely equal weight. That I could say the words, "not guilty," if the prosecutors didn't prove beyond any reasonable doubt that a grown man forced himself on a child.

But the fact is, the way the law is written it's almost impossible to prove guilt. Not unless there's video, practically, because unless the victim can prove a lack of consent, it's assumed that consent was there.

And that? That's bullshit. Top grade, refined, mass produced bullshit.

It was going to be an ugly trial, I have no doubt. Based on the barbs between lawyers, it looked like the defense was planning to attack the girl's mom- to point out that she was an illegal immigrant. And if she would commit a crime to stay in the country, who's to say she wouldn't lie about her daughter being raped?

Her six or seven year old daughter.

Now, I wasn't going to write about this. I wasn't going to write about it at all, because no matter how I scour the news I can't find even a note about this case. Maybe because Cook County has so many of them. Maybe because the news just doesn't care about a four year old case of non-English speaking brown people hurting other non-English speaking brown people. Maybe because the media is too wrapped up in the revelations about the Chicago Arch Diocese papers that document the decades of systematic protection of pedophiles in the church. Maybe the sexual abuse of boys is dominating our news, and there isn't a minute to spare for talking about yet another little girl.

But this case is too common. And too much like the one case in the news where nearly all the details are the same.

A seven year old girl, accusing a man old enough to be her father of sexually assaulting her, and him denying it. His defenders accusing the girl's mother of lying and manipulating her child for some twisted gain.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Dylan Farrow, after more than two decades, came forward to talk, somewhat obliquely but with boldness, about being sexually abused by her adopted father- Woody Allen.

And now Allen is talking with the New York Times, and they've said they may run his letter- chronicling his own defense.

And I can't be unbiased. I can't. I have to be honest- I would have been a terrible juror. Because even if the law failed to prove he was guilty, I would be just as sure that the law was wrong.

'Innocent until proven guilty' is important, it is the foundation of our justice system. But we don't afford victims the same pleasures.

We have already decided, as a culture, that women lie about being raped. That women manipulate men in order to hurt them. That they use their children as weapons. That children are liars, incapable of telling truth from fiction.

None of that is true.

But it's impossible to prove.

You see, one thing we know about rapists, as opposed to victims, is that they honestly don't think they're rapists. They don't believe they are. They just don't. They think rape only happens when you beat somebody up and tie them down leave them half dead in an alley.

They don't think that just waiting until somebody is asleep, or drunk, is rape. They don't think you can rape a wife, or a live in girlfriend. They think that if they coerce somebody into saying "yes," or trick them into saying "yes," or threaten them into saying "yes," it's not rape. Because they said yes.

Some of them think that sex is when a girl lays below them, unmoving and frightened while they get off. Some of them think that sex is when you've finally "worn them down" until they just can't say "no" one more time.

Some of them think that children are sexual beings, teasing them, taunting them, and their lack of a language for what is happening is the same thing as an agreement. That when they say, "This is our secret, okay?" and the child in front of them nods, it is an agreement.

They don't think they're rapists. They think this is what everybody does.

And just as most rapists don't believe they're rapists, most victims don't let themselves believe they're victims. Not at first. anyway. And how do your prosecute a crime like that? Where the victim doesn't want to admit they're a victim and the perpetrator doesn't believe they did anything wrong?

Do I know what the defendant did? No, I don't. But I believe the victim. Because she has nothing to gain from this. No victim has anything to gain, contrary to popular belief.

Have you seen what happens to victims? They're stalked and assaulted. They're pilloried in the public square, while the media bemoans the tragic loss to the life of the perpetrator. They have their houses burned to the ground. They get called sluts, liars, bitches, monsters.

For the rest of their lives they are burdened not only with the weight of what somebody did to them physically, but the emotional scars of the attacks of strangers, just for having been a victim.

Comments like, "Some girls rape easy," might be easy to shrug off because they're so common, but they shouldn't be. "Some girls rape easy," means "after you coerce somebody to have sex with you through alcohol, influence, threats, or constant nagging, some of them are willing to call that what it was in the morning- a lack of consent."

And that's good. It's good that more and more women are willing to "rape easy," which is to actually say the word RAPE.

And that is a fucking hard word to say. I know, I avoid saying it constantly.


And writing about rape? Talking about rape? That's kind of what I do. You'd be amazed how many months go by of organizing events, writing blog posts and letters, public speaking even, where I never use that word.

Typing the letters r-a-p-e makes my palms sweat and my heart race and my head swim. And I'm an advocate.

So no, I don't think I could have given that man a fair trial, by the rule of law. And no, I don't think Woody Allen is getting one now in the court of public opinion.

But that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if a trial is fair if the court is completely biased from the start.

So I'll keep my fingers crossed the Times comes to its senses and keeps a lid on Woody's apologies to nobody. A confession would be news. A letter attacking a victim and her mother for just being another couple of crazy, malicious bitches?

That's just more of what we see every day.

I have no doubt that Woody Allen believes he's innocent. Just as most sexual predators do. They believe they're innocent because they don't understand what "consent" really is, they don't understand or believe that women or children who don't scream or cry or beat them with their fists during an assault really think they were raped.  They don't understand that their actions are predatory.

They think whatever they're doing is totally normal.

And the worst part is, they're right. It is normal.

That still doesn't make it okay.

My heart is with Dylan Farrow, with a little girl finally getting her day in court after four years, with every victim who's been accused of lying by somebody who thinks they're right.

Until we do something to change the way our culture treats victims of sexual violence, I expect that number to keep growing.

By about one, every two minutes.


  1. My heart is so heavy from this, but it's such an important post. I don't know how we (as a society) can continue to prey on the weak and still call ourselves civilized. We need more respect for each other, we need to realize that we can't force others to do anything, we need more mental health support. Everything you said is right on the money, and you should know. My heart is with you and that girl and everyone else who has ever been a victim. I hope we can find a way to make this stop.

  2. So well said. I'm glad you didn't get picked for that jury, but I love that you wrote about your experience there. It is so rare that all of the safeguards of the criminal justice system that are supposed to keep things fair and right do either of those things.
    You're so right about the sexual assault and rape - it is (SADLY) almost normal and it's ridiculous that both perpetrators and victims convince themselves no crime has happen. I really hope we see that change soon.

  3. I don't think I could have been unbiased, too. :( What a heartbreaking case to be a part of; sadly, it seems too common. :(

  4. Your words are (sadly) so true. It is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Excellent post and it's refreshing to see it raw and in the open. More people should be as brave as you have been. I... Would not have been able to sit through that trial. I would have excused myself because once you go through an experience like that yourself, you can smell that garbage a world away.. And as for Woody Allen, didn't we all know he was a fucking creeper the first time we ever laid eyes on him??
    Stopping by from Bloppy Bloggers on FB.

  6. There are no words to express how this makes me feel. I ache for the fact that you are "just another victim of this unfair society" but I applaud your honesty. I'm not surprised that you couldn't be unbiased in your opinion of the defendant, but the fact that you are willing to admit your inability speaks volumes about your character. I have always enjoyed everything you have written, and this was no exception. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, even if it did make your palms sweat.

  7. I love you and this message is so important. I'm so happy to have read this. I feel especially strong about the element which discusses the way the courts are so imbalanced by being insistent that nobody who has been sexually abused or assaulted should ever have any say in the outcome of a trial for a person who is accused of sexual assault. Honestly, an ethical approach would include input from victims, who have the right to be outspoken and active members of the public, and are not rendered incapable of reason by virtue of their being victims. Fuckin' A! Well done.

  8. Damn. You nailed this. You are fucking brilliant, Lea.



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