Trigger Warning for descriptions of sexual violence and being confronted by one’s rapist
Just a couple months ago, I wrote about how a case in which an alleged rapist defended himself, and therefore cross-examined his own accusers, ended in a threat of suicide from one of the alleged victims. In a follow-up, I noted the extraordinary brokenness of a system that consistently fails to protect the needs of victims and puts their emotional and physical safety in danger.
Now here comes another story in which an accused rapist was given access to his alleged victim in court, after he elected against repeated advice to act as his own defense. After spending more than two hours questioning the woman he allegedly raped, Luis Munuzuri-Harris abruptly decided that he would now like a lawyer, after all.
A rape suspect who is acting as his own lawyer grilled his alleged victim on the details of the sex assault, and then asked the judge for a court appointed lawyer — who could now call the woman back to the stand and make her relive the ordeal again.
Rape suspect Luis Munuzuri-Harris had repeatedly rejected suggestions that he use the public defender, but changed his mind after he questioned his accuser.
Having already been subjected to the trauma of being questioned directly in open court by the man she has accused of raping her, this woman must now give her testimony again, for the lawyer that Harris has finally decided he wants with extraordinarily convenient timing.
The article notes that the judge, who it seems has advocated for the accuser as best he can throughout the trial, is considering a mistrial. A mistrial, however, would also require the accuser to repeat the trauma of her testimony. What Harris has accomplished here, then, is a situation in which the victim has no choice but to relive the horror of the night on which she was raped not only once, but twice. There is, effectively, no way out. (UPDATE: A mistrial has been denied.)
Like TigTog at Hoyden About Town, I have severe suspicions that this was likely Harris’ plan all along, to traumatize and intimidate the victim by questioning her directly, only to then secure himself a legitimately effective defense. It seems highly likely that the intent was never for Harris to defend himself against these charges, but to use and abuse the system against his accuser as dramatically and punitively as possible.
But ultimately, whether that was his intent or not, abuse was absolutely the result. Further regardless of intent, any system which would allow the potential for an alleged abuser to enact this kind of (further) abuse in its name is not one which is upholding the tenets of justice.
The good news is that court transcripts certainly make it appear as though the victim is highly tenacious:
The request for a lawyer comes after days of tense emotions in the Florida courtroom as Harris questioned the woman for more than two hours about the night of the alleged crime and asked her personal questions such as whether she wore underwear.
When Harris asked her, “When this person walks up to your car … do you get out of your car?” she corrected him, “When you walk up to my vehicle.”
At another point, she corrected his question by saying, “I was raped by you. You forced sex upon me.”
But the fact remains that we don’t know what’s going on in her head, the trauma she may be experiencing privately. It’s also true that a victim should not have to be extraordinary just to report violations of hir body. Whether weak or strong, timid or bold, shy or outspoken, all of us should be able to bear witness to the violence others subject us to without fear of retaliation and intimidation or the knowledge that the system which purports to protect us will stand idly by. A victim should not have to be extraordinary to get a chance at justice. One’s right to not be harmed should not be based on arbitrary determinations of virtue, or their ability to respond in a certain way to a traumatic event.
With such high stakes in the U.S. judicial system, as I’ve discussed in my previous posts on this topic, there are inevitably competing rights. In light of a remarkably long history of defendants’ rights being violated, marginalized individuals being falsely convicted by prejudiced courts, and non-violent offenders being subjected to highly punitive sentences, the rights of defendants need to be protected, and indeed should be protected better than they currently are.
But in any real system of justice, someone needs to be on the victim’s side. Someone needs to center the victim’s needs. The current model of “justice” is not only oppressive towards those accused of crimes, it is also oppressive to many of those who have been the victims of crimes. This system not only harms communities by overcrowding prisons and enacting persistent and intrusive state surveillance, but by also assuring those communities that it cannot be trusted to take their right to not be victimized seriously. Which is to say that if it is inherent to this system to have such high stakes that it is no longer legitimately possible to protect and advocate for victims without furthering other means of oppression, we need a new system.