Permissive age or not, it is unwise to be too understanding of rapists even in a relatively liberal university town like Madison, Wis. Judge Archie Simonson learned that lesson last week while handily losing his $36,000-a-year seat on the Dane County (Madison) bench in the first judicial-recall election held in the U S in three decades.
Simonson, 52, a plain-spoken jurist with some mod ideas in other areas of law, became the feminist equivalent of Anita Bryant last May. That was when he announced that "whether women like it or not, they are sex objects" as he set free on a probated sentence a 15-year-old youth who had raped a 16-year-old coed in a high school stairwell. Simonson explained the soft sentence as a message to women to "stop teasing." It was time, he added, for "a restoration of modesty in dress and elimination from the community of sexual-gratification businesses."
This was way back in 1977 and Simonson's idiotic sentence -- as well as the reasoning behind it -- became a national news story. The election may have been held here, but the calls for Simonson's head came from across the nation.
How things have changed. Another judge in another state is treating a rape victim just as egregiously and you know where I first heard of the story from? As It Happens, a Canadian radio show from the CBC. Clearly, this isn't as big a news story in the US as Simonson's was back in the 70s.
Not that this one is any less stupid.
Lincoln Journal Star (Lincoln, NB):
Tory Bowen says she knows what happened to her on the morning of Oct. 31, 2004.
But she won't be able tell her story to jurors -- at least not in a way that's truthful to her, she says -- because a judge's order bars witnesses from using words like "rape" and "sexual assault" in the trial of Pamir Safi, who is accused of sexually assaulting Bowen.
"In my mind, what happened to me was rape," said Bowen, 24. "I want the freedom to be able to point (to Safi) in court and say, 'That man raped me.'"
Last month, Lancaster County District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront denied a motion by prosecutors that would have prohibited Safi's attorneys from using words like "sex" and "intercourse" when describing the encounter between Safi and Bowen.
In other words, on the stand, Safi will be able to claim that he and his alleged victim had 'sex' -- implying consent -- and Bowen will be forced to agree. In fact, Bowen and prosecutors won't be able to use any words that imply rape -- it's not sexual assault or assault, it wasn't forced or without consent, and even the actual titles of people she spoke to after the event -- a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner -- can only be refered to without implying rape. In the case of the findings of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, Bowen can only refer to the 'SANE nurse.'
To make things worse, the jury knows nothing at all about the gag order. Not only won't they know why the victim is dancing around the word 'rape,' but they'll have no damned idea what the hell a SANE nurse even is. To the jury, it'll sound like Bowen thinks she spoke to the one nurse she thought wasn't crazy.
Cheuvront's ruling is designed to keep prejudicial language out of the trial. Rape, he and Safi's lawyers argue, is a legal term. Once Safi's convicted, then it's rape. Until then, it's... I don't know, a date?
"Jurors will go back to their room and say, 'She didn't feel it was harmful. After all, she called it sex,' says Wendy Murphy, a professor of law at the New England School of Law in Boston, "It's like saying to a robbery victim, 'You can't say you were robbed, because that's a legal judgement. You can only say you gave your stuff to the defendant. That's absurd."
And Cheuvront's ruling is absurd in other ways as well, according to Murphy. She spoke with Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, who had this to say:
Do a Lexis search on the influence of inflammatory language on juror perceptions. Try to find some social science data on the effect of loaded courtroom words on conviction rates. Not much out there, notes Murphy. That's one of the things that makes the Nebraska case so maddening. If judges are going to take it upon themselves to issue blanket orders that would have witnesses testifying that black is white, one might hope that they are trying to remedy some well-documented evidentiary problem.
So Cheuvront is operating on a pretty weak hypothesis, without any scientific evidence to back it up, and all to remedy a problem that there's no reason to believe exists. Apparently, logic isn't all that big a deal in Nebraska courts.
Why isn't this 'through the looking glass' reasoning on the part of a judge as big a story now as it was in 1977? They can't say it's not newsworthy, not after weeks and weeks of following the non-story that was Paris Hilton's incarceration. Compared to a sullen heiress breaking probation, this is positively groundbreaking legal news.
And it's not like Bowen is a nobody either -- her boss is Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and she's an activist in the state Republican party. Besides, what notoriety did Archie Simonson's unnamed 16 year old student have? Hell, who was Scott and Lacie Peterson? We spent more than a damned year on those guys.
What few stories I've seen on this case have missed what I believe is the big point -- why the hell does everyone on Earth know who Paris Hilton is, but almost no one knows who Tory Bowen, Pamir Safi, and Lancaster County District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront are? Why does a news industry driven by 24/7 cable news channels have plenty of those twenty-four hours over seven days for celebrity crap that doesn't even remotely matter and none for a case like this?
I'm not expecting Wolf Blitzer or John Gibson to read this blog and defend themselves here. But guys, if you do, you can't say 'Paris Hilton,' 'regional interest,' or 'news' in your defense.
Good luck with that.