It’s open season on victims, I told a group of victims rights advocates earlier this week, and no one in the room disagreed with me.
Those of us who have been fighting for dignity for the victims of sexual assault understand that we are facing a backlash in this country. We will pay the price for Mike Nifong’s mishandling of the Duke lacrosse case, and we know it. I find myself playing gotcha with young reporters, who challenge me to admit that I was wrong in arguing, a year ago, that the woman who claimed rape should not be publicly attacked or even named in the media.
But even I wasn’t ready for the news about the young woman who called the Tampa police department on Saturday to report that she had been raped and ended up in prison herself for two nights because of an old juvenile warrant that revealed an unpaid debt. How bad does it get? This bad.
In case you haven’t heard, a 21-year old college student who was visiting Tampa for the annual Gasparilla festival called police to say that she was attacked and raped while walking alone to her car. Police officers investigating her complaint first took her to a local rape crisis center, where she was given the first dose of the morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy. She then went back into the squad car and was riding around with the officers to pinpoint the scene of the crime.
It was during that ride that the officers discovered an outstanding juvenile warrant from 2003 that said she owed $4,585. At that point, the rape investigation ended. The woman was arrested and put in jail, where she remained until her lawyer went to the local media on Monday. What’s more, while in jail, she was not permitted to take the second dose of the morning-after-pill, even though the pill’s effectiveness requires two doses in a 24 hour period.
According to the woman’s lawyer, the jail worker refused to give her the necessary medicine because of her own religious convictions; the jail worker has now hired a lawyer, who says it was not religious convictions but the absence of a directive authorizing the medicine that lead to its denial. It hardly matters.
The Tampa police have since apologized to the woman, and say their new policy is not to arrest crime victims who have suffered injury or mental trauma whenever “reasonably possible.”
"Obviously, any policy that allows a sexual battery victim to spend a night in jail is a flawed policy," a police spokesperson said.
But the new policy doesn’t really speak to the underlying problem here: that the police seemed to be more interested in investigating the victim than the perpretator. And in that, they are hardly unique.
Most victims aren’t perfect. If they were, they would be less likely to be victims of sexual assault. Predators prey on the weak and the vulnerable. This woman, as it turns out, did not have an adult criminal record, but victims often do. They often have histories of prior abuse, mental health issues, money problems, rotten families. What makes them vulnerable to sexual predators should not also make them vulnerable to police investigators.
The woman in the Duke lacrosse case, it now seems clear, lied about being sexually penetrated by the three students who should never have been charged with rape – and would not have been, had prosecutor Mike Nifong followed the applicable rules in his own office. But that doesn’t mean all rape victims are suspect, or give police or courts the authority to treat them that way.
There is no evidence whatsoever that women are more likely to lie about rape than anybody else is about any crime. If anything, we know that most rapes are never reported; that the much larger problem is the number of “legitimate victims” who are afraid to face the consequences of reporting their victimization.
The message that needs to be sent to victims, particularly with all the publicity that has attended the Duke case, is that they will be treated with respect if they call the police and their complaints will be addressed seriously. It is not only in Tampa that police and prosecutors need to be reminded that they are responsible for the messages they send.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.