Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley released a statement last week claiming “no reason for any further delay” regarding a hearing about a sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Says Grassley, “Dr. Ford’s testimony would reflect her personal knowledge and memory of events. Nothing the FBI or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee.” Nothing yet has been said about the second person to make allegations, but it seems apparent that the attitude toward those allegations is the same.
Grassley is dead wrong. I know this because as a career special victims prosecutor I was able to corroborate accounts decades old, frame indictments narrowed to a relevant time period, and develop far more detailed testimony in support of allegations of child and adolescent sexual abuse. But I didn’t do it alone. I was assisted by competent and compassionate detectives and victim-witness specialists, men and women who assisted me in helping victims of sexual abuse become their own most powerful advocates for justice.
Particularly in my early days as a prosecutor in late 1990’s Alexandria, Virginia, we were ahead of our time. But the measures we employed were being developed and practiced elsewhere, and thanks to our collective efforts are becoming standards. The FBI is familiar with them.
What’s known so far about Christine Blasey Ford’s account is that she believes it occurred in the summer of 1982, when she was 15, around the end of her sophomore year at the all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. She recalls that it took place at the home of a friend not far from a familiar country club. The idea that the FBI could not assist Dr. Ford in developing more details about her allegation, including potential other witnesses and a more precise timeframe, is nonsense. I’ve done this myself with the assistance of other professionals many times.
The most pertinent example was a case I handled in the early 2000’s, involving a victim in his 30’s who came forward to report sexual abuse at the hands of a family member in the mid-1970’s. Virginia had no statute of limitations on these crimes, and eventually a partial confession obtained from the defendant allowed the case to be charged. The defendant was convicted of decades old sexual offenses against a minor, but not solely because of the partial confession. In fact, the most powerful evidence came from the victim himself, who testified eloquently and compellingly about what he experienced.
How? Because he worked painstakingly with a marvelous detective who helped him to narrow the indictment period and then to recall crucial elements and facts. They looked through family photos and yearbooks, news clippings and even old weather reports to determine the timeframe in which events of abuse occurred. I was able to bring the case across the finish line. But it was really the detective and the victim who produced, through patience, courage and mutual respect, the details that gave it merit.
It was not a fast process. In order for an investigator to help a victim of a past traumatic event unearth details and provide tools for corroboration, the investigator must employ what’s now commonly known as a “trauma-informed” approach. Among other things, this technique allows victims to feel relaxed, protected and not judged as they recollect and relate. Ford has stated she was literally afraid for her life, and that the attack haunted her well into later life. There is no doubt in my mind that a trauma-informed investigation, using other materials from her life at that time, would yield information that would either further support or perhaps even cast doubt on her allegation.
As Linda Fairstein, the legendary sex crimes prosecutor and former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Sex Crimes Bureau stated to the Washington Post earlier this week, “I stand to believe there’s no such thing as a ‘he-said-she-said’ case.” Fairstein and I differ on some methods of investigation, but we agree on this point. My mentor in child abuse prosecution, Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center, puts it similarly: There is always corroboration if responders are willing to think creatively and search for it. In this crucial case, the FBI should be tasked to do exactly that.