Tag Archives: Heroes

Justice and Beauty. A Last, Full Measure

TeresaShe was sharp. She was tough. She was deeply kind.

She was resplendent in red.

She was a loud, happy harmony of Italian-American toughness, soft skin and sweetness, belly laugher and beautiful, dark eyes. She was flirty. She was flinty. She was piercingly honest.

She was uncompromising when it came to the truth. She understood what we generally call evil, but far more than that, she understood that we don’t yet know exactly what evil is. With that blessed and rare knowledge, she knew we had to step lightly.

But still, she knew, we had to step forward.

Teresa Scalzo was the most accomplished and respected legal expert when it came to the prosecution of sexual violence in the U.S. She changed everything; the expertise she developed as a sex crimes prosecutor in her corner of northeastern Pennsylvania became first a national challenge and then a national standard. She came of age in a time when- understandably- some leaders of the anti-sexual violence movement were turning away from prosecution as an answer to sexual violence.

Their objections to what we do were valid, of course. America, as I say increasingly in lectures, and as Teresa knew before me, doesn’t have a criminal justice system. It has a criminal adjudication system. Justice is an ideal, a state of blessed balance in human interaction, a satisfying sense of rightness embedded somehow in our common ancestry. It’s funny, actually; for all of the education and drilling we lawyers put ourselves through, what we end up striving for our entire professional lives is something toddlers grasp as they would a toy key ring. And yet this deeply human, deeply shared sense of simple rightness is also as elusive as a rainbow.

The elusiveness of justice is no more pronounced then where crimes of sexual violence are concerned. The subject itself- sex- is hopelessly tangled in thousands of years of mystery and shame, pleasure and violence, life and death. There has never been a phenomenon so central to human existence and yet so shrouded, so guarded, so punished. The punishers have been- cross culturally- mostly men. For millennia they’ve been simultaneously intoxicated by and terrified of the power of women. It’s been less even about sex than about the female embodiment of it, the women who bled but did not die, who brought forth life from swollen bellies and then fed it from their breasts, these goddesses who could erase the mind of a conqueror with a smile, or a frown. These creatures, the thinking has gone, must be controlled. Demonized. Marginalized. Our desire for them, the thinking has gone, must be projected. Sanitized. Excused.

Teresa understood these dynamics. The ancient ones. The current ones. The fact that they’re all really the same. What she fought for most ardently, though, was the redemption of the only system we have- in the most advanced society in the world- to deal with sexual violence. Teresa fought for the relevance of prosecution to the fight against rape. She did this not because she thought the system was perfect or ever could be; rather, she fought for it because she knew it was all we have. The law, at bottom, is our only living embodiment of the public will. For rape victims, the civilized response is about the system we have: The police, the advocates, the nurses, the prosecutors. Teresa looked at this system, and she knew she could make it better.

She was right.

Our system is far better now then when Teresa Scalzo started to make it better. It has a long way to go, but every step it takes moving forward, it takes with her legacy as its power.

I was in awe of this woman, this goddess, this marvelous mixture of seriousness and red wine hangovers, of wisdom and joy, of scholarship and instinct, of hope and frustration. She taught me everything. She vouched for me as a man in a woman’s world, which was so ironic because we both initially inhabited a man’s world- prosecution- that Teresa nevertheless took over where sexual assault was concerned through will, sincerity and raw skill.

I strove every day to keep in step with her, always behind but always inspired.

And then she died. But not before giving the last, full measure of everything she was- and dear God that was so much- to what we do in the service of the women and men whose lives are torn apart by sexual violence. What we do now, we do largely in her honor, and through her legacy.

I know now in middle age what an elusive ideal justice is, and I am sadder for it. But I also know what beauty is. I know how the shadows of existence are shot through with it, and how it expresses itself to us, as I believe God does.

T, you were beautiful. Thank you.











Honored Beyond Words: Being a Part of “Lived Through This”

LTTIt has to have been 8 years or more since I first heard of the Voices and Faces Project, although it seems like much longer. Its mission is so beautifully simple that it tends to transcend its also beautifully simple name: Voices and Faces.

But that’s the point.

The best prosecutors, investigators and advocates I ever worked with in this business knew that the word “case,” and the dozens of other words we use to categorize, triage, sanitize and process human misery as a result of crime, was a reprehensible substitute for the person we came to know at the center of it.

Yes, it was a case, and it had to be dealt with as such. But the thing that haunted us wasn’t the case. It was the she or he, the unique, mysterious, and sometimes broken, sometimes remarkably unbowed, person before us. To the extent we were responsible to her or him- at least for what we could control in the almost comically blunt and fractured, imperfect system we worked in- we struggled to keep that person’s face foremost in our minds. We struggled to hear her or his voice as we strategized, made decisions, and dealt out “justice” as we’d been conditioned to accept and define it.

But even that voice- the one we heard- was truncated. I was good at what I did, and I listened well. But what I needed to hear professionally, and what I could spare the time and emotional energy for, was always far less than what could have been fully related to me. When I parted ways with a survivor, whether she was 5 or 75, I often wondered what I’d missed, and was missing then and forever. But it wasn’t something I could dwell on. There were more “cases” coming in. Pretty much every day.

The pinnacle of what I did wasn’t winning those cases (and yes, I accept how self-serving that sounds, having lost my share). Regardless, the pinnacle was responding to the voices and acknowledging the faces in a way that gave them- and not us- the measure of dignity and recognition they deserved.

That is the day to day challenge that simply must be met in the Anglo-American criminal justice response to sexual violence, or all else is lost, and our critics are right to say we serve no one but ourselves.

But even at our best, we could only see so much, and absorb so much. There was- and always will be- an ocean of human experience going woefully unnoticed by those of us tasked with responding professionally to the harm done. We’re simply not equipped to know it all, whether because it’s not legally relevant, not immediately discernible, or not emotionally digestible given the spectrum we work on.

And the saddest fact, of course, is that the incalculable amount of suffering, resilience, inspiration and courage that results from sexual violence in our world could be at any time multiplied exponentially from what I missed, and that all of us in the entire system miss. This is because we only see what enters the system we created in the first place. The vast, vast majority of sexual violence that occurs the world over, day in and day out, is never revealed to any sort of system of authority or adjudication. It simply goes unmet, unaided, unanswered. Unheard.

Voices and Faces changes that, and with no more than the courage of the survivors and the ability to memorialize their accounts. Of course, the project stands apart from the criminal justice response and well it should. I simply came across it as a practitioner with no other perspective.

Except for one. I am a victim, myself of child sexual abuse, a fact known now to most who know me in any capacity, but unknown to most during my tenure as a special victims prosecutor. A few years ago, the author of “Lived Through This,” herself a survivor of a brutal home invasion rape and a dear friend, approached me about being a part of the compilation she envisioned. She knew my story. She wanted to tell it for me. The proudest thing I’ve ever done is to allow her to do so.

Thank you, Anne, for doing it so very beautifully.

Needed Wisdom on Rape from a Former Judge

Prof_Bobby_Prof_J1_midsz“We were insulted by the word “date” rape. “Date” rape does not exist. It’s a misnomer; It’s like saying “car-jack.” Car-jack is robbery. Rape is rape. That’s it.”

former judge Robert Holdman on his time as Chief Trial Counsel, Child Abuse and Sex Unit, Bronx District Attorneys Office, Bronx, New York

A colleague and mentor, former New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert Holdman, was invited to participate in a Huffpost Live broadcast on the Steubenville rape case as the trial was being heard. He was joined by Alexander Abad Santos of the Atlantic Wire, and also Zerlina Maxwell and Jaclyn Friedman. Friedman and Maxwell in particular are well-known warriors in the fight against rape culture, and I’ve had the honor of working with and learning from Jaclyn personally. The broadcast is an excellent discussion of the Steubenville dynamics and the larger problem beyond it. It’s still well worth watching even as the case fades slowly away from the news cycle.

What made Holdman’s comments so important is that they came from the perspective of a former trial judge. While most U.S. judges are honorable professionals worthy of the power of the robe, the judiciary is still a place where we don’t see enough understanding of the dynamics and reality of sexual violence. This is particularly true with non-stranger sexual violence, the kind women and men experience far more than any other.

Every criminal defendant deserves a full and robust defense, and also a judge who is sensitive to the circumstances of an individual facing the power of the government, regardless of the charges. Holdman would surely agree, and his comments rightfully included the responsibility of judges to be neutral and fair to defendants facing criminal prosecution. Being a good trial judge doesn’t mean- from my perspective or any other- assuming guilt in any criminal case or anything close to it. But an ignorance of the reality of sexual violence, particularly between individuals who know each other, and an over-reliance on the myth and innuendo so pervasive in our culture regarding rape and sexual assault, lead far too many judges to render irrational and unjust decisions in these types of cases.

Important professional opportunities have taken Holdman- for now- from his duties as a trial judge. Still, I hope the messages he has conveyed reach the men and women who make the crucial decisions that shape sexual violence cases nationwide and beyond. I also hope he finds his way back to the bench as his career progresses; his kind of clarity on this subject needs to be as common on the judicial bench as it needs to be everywhere else.



10 Years in Iraq: The Fragrance of Flowers. The Horror of War. The Burden of Doing Justice in its Wake


Note to readers: The post below was one I wrote not in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, but an anniversary of the atrocities at Al-Mahmudiyah. I’ve since realized the post is more appropriate for publication at a significant anniversary of the invasion. The reason is simple: The atrocities at Mahmudiyah are as intrinsic and foreseeable an aspect of war as any that can be imagined. The designers of the war must never be allowed to escape that.

“Abeer” translates in Arabic to “the fragrance of flowers” and was the name given to the 14 year-old girl ruthlessly raped and murdered, along with her parents and six year-old sister, on March 12, 2006, near the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq. The murderers were a group of American soldiers, stationed at a nearby checkpoint in an especially brutal time after the American invasion three years previous.

Of the many honorable men and women I met serving as a civilian in the Army JAG Corps, the one I came to know the best was among the first and most involved prosecutors in the Al-Mahmudiyah massacre. It wasn’t enough that he endured a difficult and dangerous deployment as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He was also saddled with bringing, of all things, the weight of that crime home with him as he handled the case near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He did this while readjusting to stateside and family life as a husband and father. He’ll acknowledge that burden if it’s pointed out. But he will never, ever complain about it. First, because by God’s grace, his own family is intact and healthy, and he was able to hold them when he returned. Second, because seeking justice for Abeer and her family was an honor he accepted with humility and a deep sense of duty that I found typical in the Army JAG Corps. He sought justice for his Army and his country. But I suspect most of all he sought justice for for Abeer, and the details he came to know of her life and the unspeakable circumstances of her death.

The details are public, if you want them. I can tell you that nightmares are all you’re likely to get for mining them, and I say this as a trained absorber of such things.

The Army JAG Corps ignored several things I encouraged them to address while I served as a consultant. In a time where soldier suicides are spiking in particular, perhaps the most puzzling to me was refusing (to my knowledge and based on their responses to me at the time) to even look into proactive assistance for JAG prosecutors and defenders who must absorb, if not horrors like Mahmudiyah on a daily basis, then things like increasingly detailed and technologically advanced videos of children used in pornography or worse.

And then there is war, the ones we’ve been waging now on the backs of a volunteer military and its valiant but exhausted support bulwark for nearly 12 years. Among myriad other things, war requires the prosecution and defense of combatants accused of atrocities and horrors more regularly than many grasp.

I blame Mahmudiyah solely on the men who conceived and carried it out. They represent nothing but themselves; not the US Army, not the stress of combat (which the vast majority of soldiers endure without resorting to murder and rape) and not even the war itself. Regardless, the men and women who must address legally what military conflict inevitably produces must be cared for during that process. Of its many poisons, war vomits things like Mahmudiyah regularly. It did so at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, at My Lai,Quan Ngai, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It has done so in every war and under every flag unfurled since the beginning of combat.

The architects of the 2003 Iraq War, just as the drum-beaters for Vietnam, may argue with scholarly confidence that they were right, or with grave regret that they were wrong. But none may claim a lack of foreseeability for one single thing that occurred or will occur as a result of their decisions. No act, no matter how shocking, how damning, how soul-crushing and freakishly inhuman, is unforeseeable the moment war is engaged.

Similarly, the stress of sorting out, in courts of military justice, the details of anything war yields is also foreseeable and addressable. It’s not enough to own, no matter how deeply, what war really is. We must also support appropriately those who must seek justice in its wake.






Virginia, Blood and Soil

VSPAlexandria Police

Through five European dominated centuries, Virginia soil has been stained red time and time again. The Civil War alone drew so much blood- along the turnpikes and rivers, in the killing fields and tree lines- it’s a wonder it wasn’t coughed up by the tired, stomped-on ground tasked with absorbing it.

Within eight days of each other this month, the blood of two men, both police officers, again stained Virginia ground in two places quite familiar with its presence. One occurred in Alexandria, the contested and then occupied port city just south of Washington, and one in Dinwiddie County, southeast of Petersburg and cross-hatched within the brutal conquest of Richmond and then the Confederacy.

One man lost his life at the scene. The other, thankfully, clings to life.

I know Peter Laboy, the officer shot in Alexandria on a traffic stop who, as of this writing, thankfully survives and improves. We were rookies at exactly the same time in early 1997, him of the Alexandria Police Department and me as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney.  As I learned to prosecute Driving While Intoxicated cases, Peter was learning to write them up; I would spend time with him on nights I was riding along with the evening and midnight divisions in search of drunk drivers. He was kind, boyish and soft-spoken in those days, not yet possessed of the confidence I imagine he has now as a veteran of the city’s elite motor unit.

I did not know Junius Walker, the Master Trooper and 35 year-veteran of the Virginia State Police who was shot and killed when he stopped to assist a motorist along I-85. He seems like a fine man and exactly the kind of cop who made me truly enjoy the interaction I had with police officers and state troopers over the years. I do know well the desolate, wooded stretch of road he was killed along, and I doubt I will travel it again without thinking of him. 

By God’s design we all return to the earth, bones and flesh to dust again. But a somber salute should be offered to these two men who most recently gave early to the earth precious blood in service to their Commonwealth. May that already hallowed ground not be burdened again with the red stain of violence for a long, long time.