Tag Archives: Sexual Assault

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.

Proposed Changes to Military Preliminary Hearings: Reasonable, Easily Implemented, and Sorely Needed

While I believe Congress should pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, there’s a far more easily implemented change being urged on the President that should meet little resistance. But even it is considered “radical” in some military circles. Recently, a Navy Times article focused on proposed changes to Article 32 hearings, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice operate like preliminary hearings in civilian systems. The “32,” as JAGs typically refer to it, is a less formal hearing where evidence is presented to a neutral investigating officer. That officer then makes a recommendation about the case to the Convening Authority, that is, a commander (usually a general officer) who then makes the final decision as to whether the case is “referred” for court martial.

The changes- implementable by the President- are being proposed specifically for the enhanced protection of complainants in sexual assault cases; the need for them became apparent to reformers particularly after the exhausting, multi-day examination of a Naval Academy midshipman involved in a rape case against three classmates late this summer. The changes are sorely needed, in least in terms of how Article 32 hearings often play out in sexual violence cases, and they are eminently reasonable. 

Yet the language used in the article is perhaps a measure of how concerning any change to the military justice system is to insiders. The reporter describes the proposal as a “major reform” and a “radical overhaul” of the process. It is neither.

The officer who presides over the Article 32 hearing listens to evidence, prepares a summary of the testimony, and gives recommendations for disposition to the Convening Authority. At present, there is no requirement that the investigating officer in an Article 32 hearing be a military judge. Or a JAG. Or someone with any legal training at all. The I.O. can be simply another officer uninvolved with the case, meaning a company commander in an artillery brigade, a signal corps officer, or one of any other specialty.

For many UCMJ offenses,  this is not a matter of concern. The idea of the Article 32 hearing is to allow for a neutral party in the officer corps to consider the matter before a commander at a much higher level considers whether to convene a court martial around it. That officer doesn’t have to be legally trained, in many cases, to competently consider facts and listen to witnesses.

But sexual assault cases are unique and difficult to adjudicate fairly. This is particularly true when they involve (as they almost always do) circumstances like parties known to each other, alcohol consumption, or counter-intuitive behavior like delayed reporting or post-assault communication. Aggressive defense attorneys, bound by ethics to defend their clients zealously, can and do sometimes take advantage of both the relative informal setting and legal inexperience of the I.O. to ask questions of complainants that would not be permissible in a court martial.

In the extreme, this can amount to a strategy of harassment in hopes of improperly discouraging a victim from continuing with a prosecution. Certainly not all defense attorneys plan this kind of legal attack, but without an adjudicator that is familiar with the limits of the law, aggressive and improper questioning can go unchecked even when prosecutors object. I.O.s can seek legal assistance during an investigation, but they don’t have to. Further, defense attorneys may actually outrank both the prosecutor and the I.O, adding a further complicating dynamic. Senator Boxer and co-sponsors (Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Speier) are asking the President to formalize the Article 32 process so it mirrors more closely preliminary hearings in Federal courts. This is not too much to ask.

I’ve been told by JAG friends in other services that military judges are regularly utilized to oversee Article 32 hearings. My observation of the Army process though, was much different. I personally never saw a military judge assigned to an Article 32 hearing, and knew of only one or two cases when a JAG presided over one.

Military-wide, the process should be tightened to guarantee that justice for both parties is best approached, and in exactly the way that American criminal procedure provides: By guaranteeing that legally trained professionals who know the rules will also enforce them.

MJIA: The Right Approach to Military Justice with the Right Kinds of Cases

iStock military justice

C.S. Lewis, in the character of a demon in The Screwtape Letters instructing a protege on how lead men to Hell, notes that murder is no better than cards, if cards will do the trick. Lewis was talking about sin, of course, and which ones could successfully separate a person from God. But a limited analogy can be drawn between Screwtape’s analysis and the subtle circumstances that can thwart criminal justice. Cynicism, perfidy and incompetence are all well-known enemies; players in the system influenced by these will fail victims and their community. But there are also more subtle, even inadvertent circumstances that can hinder justice as well.

In almost three years as a civilian expert with the Army JAG Corps, I encountered almost exclusively highly competent, honorable and devoted trial lawyers both prosecuting and defending criminal cases. I also largely found commanders- the decision makers within the military system- to be fair-minded, conscientious and decent.

Still, at least in terms of how the concept of criminal justice is viewed in the civilian world, I saw systemic aspects of military justice that, despite best intentions, somtimes stand as impediments to the kind of justice we expect in response to serious crimes. These are best confronted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.  

Military expedience and deference, in particular, can have unintended negative consequences, at least in the cases I consulted on, which included rape, assault and murder. Expedience is demanded in the court martial system given the common exigencies of military life. There must also be great deference, not only to individuals of higher rank, but also to the institution itself.

These are not negative in and of themselves; indeed, they are important principles of an institution that must be cohesive, responsive and lethal. Service members willingly accept a lower value on individuality for the good of the institution. Being a part of the military is a very different experience from civilian life. Its justice system should and does reflect these differences.

But when it comes to felonies, particularly ones not instantly related to military readiness, it does not have to. That is the thrust of the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Under it, commanders, the men and women responsible for increasingly larger units within the ranks, can and will continue to have complete judicial authority where mission-specific crimes like desertion, insubordination, and espionage are concerned. What will shift, partially, will be the responsibility for deciding the merit for prosecution of more traditional felonies like sexual violence, murder and robbery. These crimes can certainly affect a unit’s readiness and cohesiveness, but they have a decreased relationship to military operations, and a profoundly different effect on victims. Traditional, often interpersonal crimes deserve an approach both 1) unhindered by the larger concerns of the command and 2) enhanced through handling by specially trained, unformed legal experts. Sexual violence in particular, given its utter uniqueness in criminality, demands this approach and thus has largely inspired it.

In the meantime, commanders will still have involvement over cases, including supervision of the accused and the victim during the process, and the opportunity to seek lesser disciplinary action in the event that a case is not referred for prosecution. We ask more from military commanders than ever before; the vast majority respond honorably and competently. But asking commanders, even with legal counsel, to make decisions about interpersonal crimes- particularly when inextricably burdened with concerns about unit effectiveness- is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental.

Where sexual violence is concerned, critics point to the willingness of commanders in most cases to pursue charges against offenders, and this is a fair point. But we only know about what is reported, and a major belief behind the MJIA is that the direct involvement of commanders in criminal justice decisions has a chilling effect. This is more than a hunch; it’s been gleaned from surveys, interviews and the accounts of service members over time.

The MJIA is not a panacea for sexual violence or other major crime in the United States military. But it is an idea far less radical than critics charge and worth implementing to bring one aspect of military justice- and only one- in line with that of the larger world.

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, Navy Undersecretary Nominee, Has Made Sen. Gillibrand’s Point on Military Justice

I’d say that Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, the President’s nominee for undersecretary of the Navy, perhaps misspoke when she made the patently awful sounding statement “the impact [of judge advocates outside the chain of command making prosecutorial decisions in sexual assault cases] would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.”

Except that Dr. Rooney didn’t speak. The statement was written, as testimony, to the Senate committee considering her nomination. One would think that answers reduced to writing are a product of more coherent thought and willful expression than what is sometimes uttered, despite best intentions. Rooney chose, or approved of, these words, and frankly they sound shocking, at least to people who don’t view justice the way she appears to view it. In fact, it seems that Rooney views military justice the way many military commanders and insiders do, that is as a tool for commanders to maintain discipline and good order rather than an ideal unto itself.

I’ve written on this before and I’ve pointed out, in fairness, that the promotion of justice is the first of the three clauses that describe the purpose of the United States military justice system. But Rooney’s apparent attitude that justice is more of a tool toward the forging of a larger goal- the maintenance of a cohesive and lethal fighting force- is one I commonly saw reflected during my civilian service to the Army.

She has since back-tracked in a letter to chairman Carl Levin, saying that while commanders certainly need to consider evidence in whether to bring charges such as sexual assault, they also need to consider more than that, and include factors such as the impact on morale and discipline.

Small wonder this clarification served to alarm Gillibrand more, not less.

Rooney believes that prosecutors are, apparently, too narrowly focused on simply whether a crime was committed against one human being by another. “Prosecutors, in my experience, evaluate evidence with an eye toward whether a conviction is likely,” she said. “Commanders consider additional factors.”

I’m not sure what prosecutors Rooney is referencing. Prosecutors are not, despite this description, auto-piloted hammers who bring charges as long as a cold analysis favors a conviction. In fact, prosecutors at all levels do consider other factors like resources and the interest of the involved parties and the community.

But what civilian prosecutors don’t do, ideally and certainly structurally, is concern themselves with whether the prosecution of a wrongdoer might be best avoided because of its effect on a larger group as an organism or entity.

This is exactly what Gillibrand is correctly fighting to end once and for all: The understandable but potentially justice-adverse tendency that commanders have to consider factors unrelated to whether one individual committed a serious criminal offense against another.

Rooney also notes favorably that commanders have “non-judicial punishment options” in dealing with offenders. But the offenders that Gillibrand’s initiative targets are service members who are committing rape and felony sexual assault. Non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ involves relatively minor confinements, restrictions, extra duty, counseling, and other disciplinary measures in lieu of a court martial for minor offenses.

Gillibrand herself, in reference to Rooney’s original troubling statement, asked “in what world would you recommend that the decision to prosecute a serious crime….not be based on evidence?”

Indeed, I’d follow up with, “in what world would you recommend non-judicial punishment for a felony sex crime?

Gillibrand’s proposed Military Justice Improvement Act does not disturb a commander’s ability to use non-judicial punishment for minor offenses, which means Rooney is either dreadfully misinformed or actually believes that NJP might be the answer to some cases of sexual violence, given the “other factors” she believes commanders should consider.

The supremacy of the individual observed in our culture is not one that can be similarly observed in military life. Many aspects of it involve compromising the needs of individuals for the larger health- and fighting ability- of the group.

But where justice, and a competent and effective response to sexual violence is concerned especially, the current system should be amended- reasonably- to do better. Dr. Rooney seems to make this very clear.

An Intolerable Glimmer and an Intolerable Focus on Controlling Women: Why I Still Fight Victim-Centered Rape Prevention

The “glimmer” is one of doubt. It’s the doubt that’s created when we analyze a rape perpetrated on a victim who was drunk, dressed seductively, or engaged in whatever behavior we have adjudged unwise and foolish. It’s a glimmer that allows for the blaming- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the victim. It’s a glimmer that allows for the exoneration- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the offender.

That’s what victim-centered rape prevention does. Regardless of how well-intentioned. Regardless of how coldly logical. Regardless of the reservoir of love and benevolence that lies behind it. Regardless. It still serves to create the glimmer. And the glimmer is too much.

See, we can claim we’re not blaming victims all we want when we advise seemingly obvious and demonstrably effective means of prevention. It does not matter; the effect still serves to blame victims and protect offenders. Why? Because sexual violence is a crime different from any other.

Read that again. Rape is categorically, undeniably in a class by itself. When one person attacks another sexually, the crime is analyzed differently than any other. Since criticizing Emily Yoffe’s State pieces earlier this week (her pieces are here and here) , I have received dozens of messages from people who construct analogies to other crimes to describe why her key advice (control your drinking) is simply sound advice and not victim blaming, regardless of how unfair it might seem. Others shake their heads and tell me I can wish for a kinder, fairer world all I want, but they’ll be damned if they won’t tell their daughters and sons exactly “what not to do” in order to protect them.

That’s understandable. But here is an undeniable truth: Leave aside my belief that all that advice, even if it works in many situations, also potentially opens up the hearers to other vectors of attack. For those who would still prefer to create rules and encourage loved ones to follow them in order to best play the odds, I will challenge them on at least one aspect of their thinking: They cannot avoid a charge of victim-blaming by claiming they would give similar advice to anyone in order to avoid, say, robbery (by walking on well-lit streets), or car theft (by locking doors).

Rape isn’t like robbery, car theft, or even murder. Sex, and how we view it, doesn’t allow for that.

The nature of sexuality in our culture (and most others) does not allow for it to be analogized to any other crime. The nuances and complexities of sexual interaction, seduction, flirtation, gender roles, the intensely private and culturally shame-based nature of the whole subject, the relation of the sexual organs to the excretory ones, the continued prizing of “purity,” etc, etc, etc, all combine to make sexual crime one that is always analyzed differently from any other.

So the danger of tipping the scales even a tiny bit and judging victim choices, thus marginally exonerating offenders, is magnified with sexual crime.

Another hard truth: The further we dig into the nature of sexual crime, the further we must dig into the nature of sex itself. And that means taking an honest look at gender roles, expectations, and deep-seated fears and obsessions that have shaped how society judges, treats, confines, punishes and subjugates women.

Read that again also, if you would. Far too much of the debate concerning how women can and should protect themselves from men is polluted with the continuing and still deeply unresolved obsession that men (and some women as well) still have with women as sexual beings. Our major religions, our societal structures, our laws, customs and mores. How many are hyper-focused on controlling female sexuality? When we can answer that question honestly and accurately, we’ll have uncovered much of what is wrong with how we seek to prevent rape.

That, in a nutshell, is why I find even the best intentioned, victim-centered prevention strategists to be ultimately wrong-headed. Try as they might, they are still tipping the scales. They are still creating doubt. As a prosecutor, that’s a thing I was trained very carefully to avoid when justice is on the line.