Saturday, February 14, 2015

Justice or Peace?

        One class I’m taking is sociolinguistics. We study different ways to transcribe spoken words. The prof passed out an example of a courtroom transcript one day. Staring at the words of the witness on the paper, my eyes began to swim and I excused myself from the room; afraid I would cry or throw up. Countless times I have been rocking and nursing Theo in his darkened nursery with tears running down my face as I tried to imagine how I would ever sit in a courtroom full of people and recount the horrifying details of how I was raped.
        I’ve talked with detectives and attorneys before, and they’ve recorded the sound of my wavering voice answering their painful questions.
        “So his penis entered you?”
        “His hands?”
        “His tongue?”
        “Did he threaten you?”
        “What exactly did he say?”
        The thought of doing that again—in front of strangers, in front of my husband—makes me nauseous. There’s something terrifying about the idea of a court reporter transcribing my every word—every detail of the rape in hard copy. As if that makes it more real.
        There was a lot of DNA evidence that was tested—then contested and retested—so this trial process has been seemingly neverending. In the early months following July 8, 2013, I didn’t want to have any direct contact with the law officers. I gave my testimony. I worked with the police artist to come up with a sketch of the suspect. A rape kit was collected in the hospital and there were more follow up swabs later. I identified the rapist in the line-up. But I didn’t want to answer the phone when the prosecuting attorney called. I didn’t want to talk about it again, I didn’t know what to say.
        Not many sexual assaults are reported. It feels shameful. I felt vulnerable placing that disgusting, terrifying moment of my life into the hands of an institution. What would they think? Would they believe me? What if I said something wrong? What if, somehow, he wasn’t guilty? (I know that doesn’t make sense—I WAS raped by a stranger at a bus stop. But I was afraid I would say something that would somehow let him off the hook.)
        The day I was raped, someone asked me about police involvement. I said I didn’t know anything.
        “But you’ll want this guy locked up, right? So he can’t hurt anyone else,” was their response. My mind couldn’t even hold that thought in my head. Did I have a responsibility to protect other women from the same horrible experience I had?  What was the “right” course of action? I wasn’t even close to being able to weigh my options. I didn’t know what my options were.
As I began healing I started answering the calls from my lawyer in Chicago. The new court date is November 28, 2014. Got it. They are still contesting evidence? Why? At first I anticipated feeling disappointed and devalued by my conversations with my lawyer. Maybe I assumed I would be just another case to her. Maybe I never dreamed the institution of law could be personal and gratifying; but with every conversation, I felt a little more empowered. I knew when they would be discussing the crimes against me. I learned what “due process” was in cases like mine.
        My assailant was facing multiple charges against him and was looking at 24-120 years in prison. I knew he wouldn’t get the highest, but I did not want him to get the lowest either.
Becca and I were driving back to Ohio from a visit in Maryland to see our parents when the familiar Illinois number lit up my phone.
        “Could we pull over? I need to take this.”
        We quickly pulled off onto a West Virginia dirt road and I stepped out of the car. My lawyer told me the defendant’s lawyer was hoping to strike a deal—which wasn’t unheard of.
        “So, how many years would you like?” she asked me.
        “Um. Excuse me?”
        “We get to offer a minimum amount of years we think he should serve. He can either plead guilty and accept that, or it will go to a 402,  which is me, his lawyer and a judge. We tell the facts to the judge and he offers the defendant a number of years which he can accept or deny. If the assailant does not accept the offer, we would have to go to trial and you would have to testify.”
        “Oh. Well. I guess I don’t want him to serve anything less than 35 years.”
        “That’s what I thought, too.”
        That conversation was a turning point for me. I had power. I could lay down the bottom line for what this crime against me was worth.
        He didn’t take the deal.
        At the 402, his lawyer requested a sentence in the 20s range. “Absolutely not. Thirty-two years is the lowest I will go,” the judge replied. Then we waited. The assailant had until January 28, 2015, to decide if he was going to take the 32 years, or if we would go to trial.
I was anxious. I had panic attacks. I had nightmares about sitting on the witness stand and being asked probing questions while the man who raped me was sitting in the room.
        On January 28, 2015, the assailant pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
        I broke down sobbing on the OSU campus when I got the news. It was over. I wouldn’t have to testify, or see him again, or drag this out any longer. It was finished. I will be 54 when he is released from jail. My son will be in his 30s. I could easily be a grandparent by then. The world will be a whole new place in 32 years, and I don’t need to have courtroom nightmares anymore.
People kept repeating the word ‘justice’ to me, as if I finally had some justice. I’m not sure I know what justice means. It didn’t feel like justice when I heard it was over. It felt like peace. I know my healing is far from over, but now a chapter is closed. I don’t have to continually revisit that day when an Illinois area code flashes on my phone. There is no impending trial. There is closure.
        I can walk around knowing that the man who stole valuable parts of me, will lose his young adulthood. He will pay something for what he took. I’m not sure that’s what justice is, but I am determined to find out it’s true meaning. I learned how empowering the legal system can be to rape survivors. I didn’t have to feel eclipsed and unheard by the enormity of the legal world. I was listened to with care and kindness. Friendly faces and gentle explanations met my every question. I know this isn’t the experience of every rape survivor, and that breaks my heart.
        I long to intervene in rape survivors’ experiences in anyway I can and extend love to them. This summer I will complete the 40 hours of training in order to become the hospital advocate I didn’t have. I don’t want any rape survivor in Columbus to be alone in the hospital when they complete the rape kit. This desire to empower survivors, to give them a voice in some small way, this determination to explore what justice means for a rape survivor, has led me to the legal section of Half Priced Books. I’ve picked up some LSAT study books and I’ve been working my way through them. I want to be a voice of comfort and clarity to a woman who feels frightened that people won’t believe her or that she will say the wrong thing. I want to know what justice is. I want to be a peacemaker in the devastating aftermath of sexual assault. For now, that means going to law school.