Trigger Warning for discussions of suicide, childhood sexual violence, domestic violence, and confronting one’s rapist.
Yesterday, a truly terrifying even took place at a Seattle courthouse when the accuser in a rape case, who was set to testify that afternoon, made her way to the roof of the building, where she stayed and threatened to jump for the next three hours. Thankfully, she decided not to jump and was eventually led to safety by police.
What brings me to blog about this story are the events that led up to it. As I said, the victim was scheduled to testify that afternoon. But the man who she accused of raping her as a young child, Salvador Aleman Cruz, is defending himself in the case. And he was the one who was going to cross-examine her.
A 21-year-old child-rape victim who was set to confront her alleged attacker in a Seattle courtroom Thursday afternoon, made her way onto the roof of the King County Courthouse and spent about three hours threatening to jump before she was led to safety.
The woman was reportedly distraught about taking the witness stand against Salvador Aleman Cruz, who is accused of raping her when she was a child in the mid-1990s. Cruz, who is acting as his own attorney, would have had the right to question the alleged victim while she was on the stand, said Dennis L. McGuire, an attorney assigned to help Cruz with his defense.
While Cruz was forbidden by court order from contacting his alleged victims, because he was acting as his own lawyer, he had a right to question the five alleged victims in the case, prosecutors said.
This is the second King County rape case in just over a year in which a defendant, acting as his own attorney, has been allowed to question alleged victims before a jury.
Most rape victims who testify against their rapist(s) in court under usual circumstances describe it as a harrowing experience. But the idea of sitting in a court of law while your rapist personally questions you from a position of authority about your memories of what sie did to you — while a crowd calmly looks on, not only failing to help you, but approving of the events — is the stuff that most survivors’ worst nightmares are made of, mine included.
I’m really, really relieved that the victim in this case is okay, at least physically, and hope that she is taking care of herself. But the fact is that this never should have happened to begin with. And no, I’m not talking about the matter that is currently being investigated, of how she was able to access the roof.
I’m not going to pretend that this case isn’t difficult. Issues that involve two sets of genuinely competing rights are always extremely fraught. And in this case, while victims have the right to not face unnecessary retraumatization, the accused does indeed have the right to represent himself in his own trial. The importance of both of those rights needs to be weighed and a way needs to be found to respect them both.
I don’t claim to have the precise answers, but I know that expecting a rape victim to undergo cross-examination by hir alleged rapist is just one step away from expecting hir to reenact the rape itself in front of the jury. A rapist is often the most terrifying person in the entire world to hir victims, especially when there are extenuating circumstances involved, as in this case:
Cruz is accused of molesting the woman and her older sister between November 1993 and February 1997, according to charging paperwork. The woman was 3 when Cruz entered her mother’s life, charges said.
Richey, in pretrial paperwork, said that the woman and other victims were terrified by Cruz, who allegedly threatened to kill them if they told anyone what had happened. The woman told authorities that she once saw Cruz hold a gun to her mother’s head.
In other words, it was irresponsible and abhorrent for the woman to ever be placed in this set of circumstances, where she would be faced with and forced to answer to the alleged terrorist of her childhood. I simply cannot find a way to justify that.
And I cannot find a way to justify having this persistent threat exist as a condition of pressing charges against one’s abuser. Witness intimidation is illegal. And the problem is that when representing one’s self means the right to question one’s alleged victim, such a setup comes much to close to precisely that. This is the case whether that intimidation is intentional or not — but I would be incredibly surprised if it was not at least the partial goal of either alleged rapist who has attempted to question the victim in King County this year. Inevitably, it could and would be used as an intimidation tactic in the future, causing victims to drop charges, lie on the stand, or not file a report at all.
It seems to me that it’s possible to form a compromise that still respects the rights of the accused — rights which I take very seriously. Indeed, Cruz was assigned with an attorney to help him with his defense. I see no reason why that attorney could have have conducted the actual act of questioning of any accusers, while Cruz enacted the rest of his own defense, nor any reason why such a standard could not be put in place for any other such cases.
In fact, previous rulings seem to side with me, indicating that child abuse victims have a right to protection from physical and psychological harm just as much as a defendant has the right to conduct hir own defense:
A bill that would have protected the victims of sexual abuse from direct questioning in court by their alleged assailant failed to pass in the state Legislature earlier this year. The bill relied on previous rulings in which courts have found that the state has an interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of child-abuse victims in addition to a defendant’s right to face his or her accusers in court.
I clearly think the same basic principle should apply to adult victims, but the overall point stands. This is why child victims testify differently in court — because vulnerable parties deserve protection. Though I wouldn’t rule out legal challenges to it, it seems to me that the bill in the state legislature had the right idea. And it’s one that, in the wake of this horrifying event, should be immediately revisited. Because it shouldn’t have taken a near tragedy like this one to spur action, and now certainly isn’t the time to sit around and wait for another one.