Dater X: Not Guilty
I’m taking a week off from writing about The Big Easy. Long story short: he is officially my boyfriend, and I’d like to give that newness a little time and a little room to grow. We’ll talk about him more in the future, to be sure. But this week, a very different kind of man occupied a lot of my time and my thoughts, and I’m going to do my best to share those thoughts with you here.
Three years ago, my sister was out with a group of acquaintances from work, and when last call rolled around, one of the guys suggested that the entire group return to his place to keep drinking and play some video games. Several people agreed that this sounded like a good idea, but by the time they got back to his apartment, it was just my sister and him. As a sociable gal – who, admittedly, likes to drink – my sister rolled with the change in plans. And a little later in the night, when the guy tried to kiss her, she told him no. He persisted. She told him no again. He pinned her down, choked her, and tried to rape her. Little Sis X is no slouch athletically, so she fought the guy off; when he stumbled off and passed out, thwarted and mumbling, she called a friend of mine for help.
My friend, a former journalist who worked the crime beat in a famously dangerous city and was so troubled by what he saw there that he enrolled in the police academy and became a detective, eventually located my sister, who had no idea where she was (they’d taken a cab to the guy’s place). Lurching down the street at sunrise in torn clothes, with a black eye and a fat lip, plus fingerprint-shaped bruises blooming around her neck, he convinced her to let him drive her to the police station, then the hospital, where she called me.
We ended up spending 12 hours in that hospital, my sister and I. I rented a car on the fly and took off; when I got there, my friend the detective had already seen her through triage, and I walked into the Emergency Room to find him with my precious little sister huddled up beside him, a welt on her forehead from the guy’s fist, the butterfly shape of his hand marking the thin skin on her throat, her voice raspy from having her windpipe crushed, her face streaked with what little was left of last night’s mascara and, as soon as she saw me, fresh tears.
We waited for her to be called, and when she was, the orderly put her in a neck brace to be sure she didn’t further traumatize her throat and spine. They photographed the defensive bruises on the outsides of her forearms, exactly where you’d expect to find them on a person who fended off blows to her face, ducking her head beneath the “X” of her arms. Her lower lip sat stubbornly over her teeth like an enormous purple thumb. Her eye swelled nearly shut, a sunset of color streaking the socket from cheekbone to eyebrow. While my sister did not disclose any details about the attempted rape to me, she explained that the guy had tried to force her to be more intimate with him than she wanted to be, and that she said no.
Anyone who saw her that day would have known that she said no.
Two days later, after I had returned home, my shell-shocked sister asked my mom to come see her, and Mama X took her to SVU to file a full report on the attack, this time including the attempted rape. By then, it was too late for a rape kit, but her bruises were still significant. The detectives took more photos.
An assistant district attorney was assigned to the case, and interviewed my sister and my detective friend. I was never contacted by that attorney for testimony, and the case languished; two more A.D.A.s were assigned to the case in succession, and I still was not contact to give testimony. Finally, this week, yet another A.D.A. called me from an “Unknown” number to ask me just what the hell had happened to my sister that night three years ago. I retold the story as best I could. My phone had been lost and replaced in the intervening three years and so had my sister’s, which meant that our texts and calls from that day, as well as the photos I’d taken in the hospital while we waited (and waited) for a turn in the CT scanner so that her neck brace could come off – photos that documented the way that the bruises spread across her face and neck and arms like autumn over a New England hillside – were lost.
Finally, this week, the A.D.A. took my sister’s case to trial.
I learned a few things this week, traveling to testify. One of them is that no one else from the prosecution is allowed in the courtroom during testimony. In other words, while my sister sat shaking on the stand and her attorney prodded her through the story of what happened that night, I was outside in a windowless prep room waiting. When her attorney pulled out the torn clothes that my sister had been wearing that night – a surprise to her, and one that immediately brought her to tears – I was on the other side of the beige wall. The defendant, on the other hand, was at his table with his slimy straight-out-of-central-casting attorney, and behind him, his mother and girlfriend (girlfriend!) listened as first the A.D.A. and then the defense attorney made my sister describe in vivid language and jerky cadence exactly what it was like to feel his hands close around her throat and squeeze the light from the corners of her field of vision in a slow, vicious fade to black as he tried to make her do something that she did not want to do.
I also learned about the difference between simple assault, a misdemeanor that carries an almost comically light penalty, typically a year or two of parole, and aggravated assault, a felony in the state where my sister was attacked that carries a maximum sentence of $25,000 in fines and up to 20 years in prison.
I learned that a jury that begins deliberating on a Friday afternoon typically hopes to be finished and to render a verdict by the end of the day, to conclude their week of service.
And I learned that the defendant (a person who has, since my sister’s attack, twice been cited for assault but never brought to trial, in cases that I can only imagine were as lengthy and convoluted and nauseating as my sister’s) will be acquitted in such a case. By a jury that felt that the penalty for aggravated assault was too harsh, even though the words of the law clearly define “felony aggravated assault” as the very crime that he committed. Even believing, as they said they did when the A.D.A. spoke to them after the trial, that he had committed the crime.
I stressed to my devastated sister how important it was that she confronted him in court and accused him to his face. I pointed out that at least the jury believed her that he was rougher with her than she wanted him to be. I reminded her that his record will forever show that he was brought to trial on this charge. I explained that if he ever gets rough with another woman, my sister’s testimony will prove prior bad acts and likely elicit the proper verdict and sentence.
“You still have your restraining order,” I told her reasonably over the phone as she prepared to board a train home.
“I do,” she said, her voice tight and small. “But what about all of the other women who live in this city?” And then, three years later, she was crying again.
And in the silence on the phone line, as she cried at the train station, I did not tell Little Sis X what I don’t even know how to tell myself: that the jury plainly decided that she, an attractive and once a bit wild young thing who went out drinking with friends, got what she deserved. That once she was at his apartment, she forfeited the right to say no. That as Donald Trump’s mouth-breathing rat-fink lawyer suggested, there are still, in 2015, in America, situations where women do not have the option to consent to what happens to their bodies. Our bodies.
At home that night, I told the story to The Big Easy, and curled up close to him in grateful silence for having found a man who doesn’t believe he has a pre-ordained right to my body unless I grant it to him. And as cozy as it felt, I couldn’t stop a chill of disgust from creeping down my back, having discovered with such sucker-punch, jaw-jarring clarity that there are other men, closer to me and the people that I love than I care to imagine, who believe that they do.