Category Archives: Legal Analysis

Buzzfeed on Dr. Kim Fromme: Blackout, Rape, & Common Sense

Katie Baker’s Buzzfeed article from August 7th showcased Dr. Kim Fromme, a clinical psychologist at UT Austin. Fromme has become a sought-after defense expert on alcohol consumption and its relationship to consent in sexual assault cases. This also makes her a flashpoint in an ongoing culture war. Sometimes, this is inevitable, and even desirable. Things like DNA analysis and cross-racial identification studies have made crucial differences in criminal cases, and usually they were initiated by outsiders unafraid to challenge norms for the sake of justice.

But Fromme’s views- at least on the physical phenomenon of “blackout”- aren’t controversial to begin with. More importantly, though, the relevance of her expertise to the reality of sexual assault and how it should be responded to is grossly over-stated.

Fromme’s willingness to testify about blackouts is not an emerging, maverick stance. Blackouts are commonly understood, particularly by toxicologists, the hard-science experts who actually study the physiological effects of toxins on the body. They’re also understood by well-informed prosecutors who handle alcohol-facilitated sexual assault cases. Yes, blackouts can interrupt memory formation, and they occur most often with rapid consumption of alcohol over a short period of time. Yes, women seem more susceptible than men, in general. Yes, a person in a blackout state might appear lucid and make decisions that appear to be informed, but not remember those decisions later. This is established science, period.

Without a doubt, this science does sometimes create a problem for a prosecutor seeking to prove that a predatory person sexually touched or penetrated a victim too intoxicated to give meaningful consent. There are situations where a person consents to sex and then doesn’t remember doing so. So it follows that, albeit very rarely, the person may believe she or he was sexually assaulted, and report the contact as rape. There isn’t a “silver bullet” answer to a claim that the alleged victim consented during a blackout and honestly doesn’t remember it. And frankly, there shouldn’t be. If the defense can establish that a blackout caused unremembered consent, then so be it. Whether the defense should or will succeed is a complicated trial question; there are aspects of the actual, physical phenomenon of blackout that can be understood and argued. The claim of “she [or he] just doesn’t remember consenting” can often be refuted depending on the circumstances and evidence.

But what’s far more important is the hard reality that the vast majority of women and men who regain consciousness after any sexual encounter do not assume, let alone assert, they were raped to begin with.

This is the most troubling aspect of Fromme’s mini-celebrity in the context of sexual assault. Fromme herself is problematic in that she appears to be yet another “expert” who (at least in part) blames alcohol consumption and “risky behavior” for rape instead of rapists themselves. She shouldn’t be demonized (at all), and certainly not for believing that binge drinking can increase the risk of sexual assault. Without a doubt, predators use alcohol to destabilize and disempower victims. Alcohol as a weapon needs to be reckoned with. Still, controlling alcohol use is not the answer to addressing predatory behavior, which is behind sexual assault.

But even worse is assuming that any use of alcohol by anyone in a sexual situation either 1) negates consent altogether or 2) gives rise to claims of rape in any more than a tiny percentage of cases. Drunk people have and will continue to have sex, largely because alcohol lowers inhibitions and allows them to act on impulse and desire. This might be unhealthy or immoral depending one’s point of view, but it’s not criminal.

But again- almost no one is claiming it is.

In fact, the opposite continues to be true: The great majority of women and men who are clearly sexually assaulted- in any context- blame themselves and tell no one, least of all law enforcement. This is especially true where drinking is concerned, since voluntary alcohol consumption fuels guilt and self-blame on the part of the victim (as an aside, this is exactly what Fromme’s “risky behavior” focus drives home). So the idea that blackouts are creating a flood of mistaken victims, willing to cry rape at the slightest fuzzy memory, thereby regularly threatening the freedom of the wrongly accused, is utter nonsense.

Blackouts are a fact, and a rare but occasional issue in sexual assault cases. Mistaken cries of rape- however imagined by men’s rights groups or media sources- are rarer still.

To Al Lord: Listen to the PennState Community. Sit down. Shut Up.

Be it blessing or curse, our hyper-connected world allows formerly obscure persons to make sudden and universally recognized asses of themselves. Enter Albert Lord, a member of the Board of Trustees for Penn State University. His comments about Jerry Sandusky’s victims, rightly called out by the website Onward State, were despicable, as was Lord’s pathetic attempt to clarify them when given a chance to recant. Driving Lord’s apparent determination to make himself a repugnant and deranged sounding public fool is his fulminating defense of Graham Spanier, the former president of PSU, recently convicted for child endangerment.

Spanier is a remarkable immigrant success story, a survivor of physical child abuse himself,  and a brilliant man. But he was successfully prosecuted for child endangerment because that’s exactly what he did. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s case was carefully crafted to track a simple statute and it did so with precision.

Spanier was shown to have colluded- there is no other word for it- with two truly odious individuals, former Assistant Vice-President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley. All were personally knowledgeable of suspected child victimization by Sandusky in 1998. Curley and Schultz were then faced with an eyewitness account of child rape by then grad- student Mike McQueary in 2001. Their response- the one they personally involved Spanier in- was to abandon an earlier plan to report Sandusky to authorities. Instead, they “reported” him to the charity he created, Second Mile, and told him not to bring children into PSU facilities. You can let that sink in, but it got worse, eight years and several victims later, when Curley and Schultz perjured themselves by telling risible lies to a Grand Jury about what McQueary told them.

The same investigative Grand Jury lied to by Curley and Schultz recommended perjury charges against Spanier as well. These charges might have gone forward on all three had the testimony of Cynthia Baldwin, a former attorney for PSU, not been ruled inadmissible due to a legal technicality. In that testimony, Baldwin excoriated Spanier, calling him a dishonest man who lied to her about what he knew and when he knew it. Along with Schultz and Curley, Spanier may have stonewalled a subpoena request from that Grand Jury for 16 months.

Spanier has repeatedly painted himself as attenuated from the obvious perfidy of Curley and Schultz, a stressed-out administrator facing multiple crises and perhaps making a regrettable call with little information.

This is common claptrap.

But to pretend that it has any merit whatsoever is not only insulting but downright dangerous. I say dangerous because, if men like Spanier, or Curley and Schultz- who in my mind continued to perjure themselves in Spanier’s trial- are allowed to create a shred of doubt in the minds of any of us about the indefensibility of their actions, then the occurrence of another gross institutional failure and the destruction of innocent lives is that much more likely.

The callow parsing of what words were used by whom, batted between these three men (and also Joe Paterno himself) must find no purchase. Did they know the full scope of Jerry Sandusky’s sophistication as a predator and the depth of what he was doing? No, and it doesn’t matter. What they knew, first about the 1998 case and then from McQueary, clearly demanded a report to authorities trained and tasked with investigating child abuse. The deliberate choice all three men made to abandon a simple plan to refer a possibly dangerous man to civil authorities was preposterous, wanton and immoral. It was also illegal.

Among the more ridiculous excuses they’ve made through lawyers is how careful they felt they had to be because of how loved and respected Sandusky was. Actually, Graham, Gary and Tim, Sandusky’s stature is exactly why you needed to act with more vigilance. A report to the Department of Public Welfare for an appropriate investigation would not have meant abandoning or betraying Sandusky. It would have been the right thing to do, and also the only lawful thing. Spanier is perhaps less morally guilty than the lying scum he colluded with for the sake of a football program. But he is equally criminally guilty, and his guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The best thing Al Lord can do in the wake of that is to keep his vile mouth shut. I tend to think the vast majority of the Penn State community, valiantly facing this failure head-on so it’s not repeated elsewhere, would appreciate that.

For support, information, and to help with regard to the fight against the sexual abuse of boys, please visit www.malesurvivor.org (full disclosure: I serve on its Board of Directors), or www.1in6.org. 

 

What Putting Steve Bannon in the Oval Office Says to Survivors of Domestic Violence

Steve Bannon, appointed by Donald Trump as his “chief strategist,” was charged in 1996 with domestic violence and witness tampering for 1) grabbing the throat and wrist of his then wife (a charge corroborated by the responding officer who saw the injuries) and then 2) apparently threatening her with destitution (or worse) if she didn’t leave the jurisdiction so she couldn’t be called as a witness against him.

I’ve spent nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, a consultant, a legal expert, a teacher and an advocate, fighting to end violence against women and children.

So yes, I find the idea of giving this thug unlimited and unmatched influential access to the President of the United States insulting, to say the least.

But my service and my experiences can and should be held cheap, in terms of this vile choice and its effect on me, next to that of every woman beaten, savaged, threatened and ultimately silenced by a man.

One such man will now be at the ear of the most powerful person in the world for at least the next four years, and will report to work regularly within steps of the Oval Office.

 

 

Dan and Brock Turner, and the Lie of Alcohol, Promiscuity and Victim Blaming

A portion of Dan Turner’s letter to his son Brock’s sentencing judge was released last week after Turner, 20, was sentenced for three felony counts of sexual assault. He received three years probation and only six months in jail, a risibly light punishment. Turner was actually caught in the act of sexually penetrating the victim; two graduate students came upon him while he was top of her, clearly unresponsive. Police officers arriving on the scene found her similarly helpless. Unlike most non-stranger sexual assaults, particularly ones involving young people and alcohol, Turner’s guilt was demonstrated with relative ease. He committed a horrific crime, period. He truncated and permanently altered the life of another human being, period.

A father can be forgiven for begging leniency from a court of law when his son has committed a terrible crime. Dan Turner should not be excoriated simply for the effort of attempting to put his son’s entire life in context, or for bemoaning what he thinks the effects of incarceration might have on him. His message, though, now public, must be exposed for what it is: A dangerous diversion of blame for what his son did.

Turner’s obvious gaffe. describing his son’s crimes as “20 minutes of action,” was probably no more than a terrible choice of words. I doubt Turner meant “action” in the now antiquated sense of “getting some action” or anything similar. I’ve seen social media posts that highlight this phrase as evidence of the man’s callousness or worse, but I don’t think that bears out.

What is of greater concern, and what must be debunked to the wider world, is his attempt to shift the blame for this crime from his son to what he describes as “the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.” And beyond this, his belief that Brock should pay society back by educating other college students in an effort to “break the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate consequences.”

This is as patently absurd as it is insulting and dangerous. Brock Turner, whatever else he’s capable of or has achieved, committed a predatory act of sexual violence on January 18, 2015. Not knowing the details of the case, I can’t say for sure if he identified his victim earlier in the evening and took manipulative steps to isolate her, or if he formed his intent upon realizing he had control of her in an unresponsive state. Either way, his actions were predatory. His actions were volitional. He made a choice. That choice has devastated the life of a young woman who- with effort and support- will recover fully, but who will never, ever look at her life the same way again.

So let’s be crystal clear: It is both incorrect and dangerously misleading to claim that the very separate issues of “alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity” somehow combine to draw otherwise non-sexually violent men into a vortex of rape they cannot be held completely responsible for. Both excessive alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity can be objectively unhealthy.

But neither of these things have anything to do with sexual violence, other than to provide the attacker with three weapons:

  1. A pathway to rape through the weakening of the reflexes, protective judgment and instincts of the victim and others who might protect her (or him).
  1. A brilliant cover for the tracks of the attacker’s actions, due to the compromised memory, credibility and even moral stature of the victim and the relevant witnesses.
  1. A perfect excuse in allowing alcohol, a substance that unleashes desire rather than creating it, to nevertheless take the blame for the attacker’s choices, and to provide a convenient way to blame the victim as well, complicit for having “gotten herself raped” because of drinking.

I don’t know what Brock Turner plans on doing when he’s completed his tiny stint behind bars. I certainly hope it does not entail speaking to a single college student anywhere about “breaking the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate consequences.”

Brock Turner has no right to lecture anyone on anything, let alone something as specious as some sort of cautionary tale to young men about becoming “victims” of alcohol, as if it somehow conspired from a bottle to compel him to disrobe and penetrate a young woman on the cold ground outside of a frat house.

Turner is guilty. Turner and no one and nothing else- certainly not the woman he attacked. Until that fully sinks in, the best anyone can hope for it that Turner keeps quiet.

 

McCrory, Forest and Moore: You’re Bigots for the LGBT Bill. You’re Cowards for Hiding Behind Women and Children

From a joint statement from Lt. Governor Dan Forest, President of the Senate, and House Speaker Tim Moore, on calling a special session of the North Carolina Legislature:

“We aim to repeal this ordinance before it goes into effect to provide for the privacy and protection of the women and children of our state.”

Dan Forest, you’re a bigot.

Tim Moore– we knew each other in college, actually- you’re one also.

So are you, Governor Pat McCrory. You’re a bigot.

You’re also hypocrites and cowards, all three of you. And that’s exactly how you’ll be remembered. I could withhold the personal invective and call your actions bigoted and cowardly, but instead I’ll call you what you are, based on the actions you took as full-grown men in positions of political power.

If you three believe you’re justified in preventing North Carolina municipalities from reasonably protecting the rights of some its most vulnerable and regularly discriminated against and preyed upon citizens, be honest about why. Admit you’re doing it because people who are unlike you, or who apparently offend your purported religious beliefs, personally offend you.

Admit that these religious and/or personal beliefs make you feel justified in preventing elected officials- much closer to their communities than you are- from protecting not just the rights but the basic dignity of harmless people you nevertheless disdain, even when suicide, crime and myriad other forms of victimization stalk them.

Admit further that your desire for continued political power, gleaned more and more from a sad and hateful, but thankfully dwindling base is what drives you to continue to offer it anything that will keep its money and votes coming, thus keeping you in the power you crave.

But don’t hide behind women and children.

I am a nearly 20 year veteran of the legal and societal battle against child sexual abuse. I have prosecuted hundreds of cases in two states, for both local and state agencies. I have trained thousands of prosecutors, detectives, child protection professionals, medical providers, soldiers, and others in 49 states and in foreign countries for the United States Army. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse myself. I am more familiar with the dynamics of sexual violence, particularly against children, than most people in my field. When I say I know what I’m talking about where the concerns of women, children and sexual victimization are concerned, I am making a profound understatement.

So I can say with deep confidence that your argument- allowing individuals to use restrooms aligned with their identified gender will create some intolerable risk of predatory men sexually victimizing women and children- is garbage. Your effort to hide behind women and children- worse, to exploit them with this vacuousness- is cowardly.

In my entire career I have heard of exactly zero cases involving transgendered people born male who have sought to infiltrate a space normally segregated to women and girls in order to harm them. In the thousands upon thousands of cases of child sexual abuse I have encountered, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators have been males identifying as cisgender and straight.

I’ve also seen an alarmingly high percentage of perpetrators who infiltrate religious institutions and then sexually abuse children, persons with disabilities, mentally ill and other vulnerable adults. That kind of abuse happens every day in the churches, the mosques, the temples and the parishes of North Carolina. From Appalachia to the coast. From Virginia to Georgia.

So are you ready, Tim, Dan and Pat, to regulate, limit and police the interaction of pastors, youth ministers and other religious leaders with vulnerable members of their congregations, all on the exact same logic? You have before you, after all, not just paranoia, or cynical speculation to act upon. You have cold facts; a mountain of evidence exists on which you could justify segregating religious leaders from children on the grounds of protecting children and vulnerable adults from them.

Will you? No, I didn’t think so. My point is not to be anti-religious; I remain a practicing Roman Catholic. My purpose is to lay bare what you really are and what your actions really amount to.

This vileness will eventually be reversed, cleaned up and rectified by the children of your great state. But not before the economic and social consequences have been felt, just as they were after the exact same small-minded bigotry was once directed at people of color.

McCrory. Forest. Moore. This will be your legacy, and your remembrance. And it will be richly deserved.