failure of the courts

The Articles

I want to vomit.  No, I want to beat something to bits and vomit over the pieces and cry all the while.  Why so visceral?  Because for the past two days I’ve been confronted by articles in the newspaper that exhibit a horrific scene facilitated by the court that could easily be avoided by a practical and cheap solution.

The two articles (day 1, day 2) by Paula Reed Ward of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describe the current trial of a suspected serial rapist.  If the charged crime itself elicits both disgust and rage from you, then you are human.  If the trial for such a crime seems like putting a band-aid on an amputation (yet must still be conducted for the sake of averting future horrors), then you are reasonable.  And if the articles encourage you to believe something is amiss in that courtroom, then you are a knife like me.

Ward seems to feel the same way—that’s why her articles open with narrative to pull our hearts through the meat grinder and end with partial courtroom transcriptions to demonstrate the fallout of a gap or flaw in courtroom procedure.

The Content

What disturbs me is twofold:

First, that the court failed to recognize the potential and unnecessary harm that would be imposed upon the victim-witnesses while encountering their accused violator.  This encounter is not a simple or proximal encounter either—in fact, the judge had wherewithal enough to demand that the defendant remain seated while conducting the cross-examination—but it is instead a complex encounter, a conversation of sorts designed to draw out relevant details that ought to sway juror opinion.  But in reading the partial transcript, it is evident that the defendant had no interest in swaying opinion.  In fact, it seems as though none of his questions substantiate a defense; rather, they seem to have but one end—to relive the episode.  Having but the most cursory of understandings of rape dynamics, I yet vaguely recalled it being purported that most rapes are assertions of power rather than unbridled lust or perversion.  Such were the obvious directives of this defendant’s cross-examination, and constitute a second violation of these victims as they are obligated by the court and the success of their case to answer their accused violator and in detail describe their helplessness at his hands.

Second, that such a circumstance has not yet been resolved!  Within hours of reading the first article, I wrote to a law-student friend and within minutes he replied that while the judge ought to have foreseen this complication (and the devastation it propagates), what’s more crucial and what removes the burden of a judge’s discretion is a change in courtroom procedure.  His proposed solution?  Allow the defendant to conduct his own defense—only this time, in recognition of the potential for his abuse of that right and privilege, allow him only to write the questions and assign a court clerk to actually ask them of the victim-witnesses.  This is merely a product of a moments’ discussion, and the issue begs more knowledgeable and capable actors for appropriate address.

What this case illustrates is a gross disparity between what the collective culture knows about the best treatment of individuals and what the local culture of any institution, group, family, or couple actually exhibits.  Our failure to share and embrace information and enact simple, practical solutions causes undue suffering and further retards our growth as a healthy global society.

what do you think?

Thank you for reading.
Thank you for writing.

  1. On day three of reporting (day four of the trial), the newspaper finally comments on the “extreme, but not unprecedented” circumstance of victims being further traumatized by confronting their accused violator in the process of the trial. That article can be found here:

    The expert legal source cited in the article went on to explain that defendants who conduct their own defense do so for many reasons, but ultimately “don’t have extremely good judgment.” He went on to say that for victim-witnesses who can assume composure, assertion of their truths is an empowering moment.

    And I’m sure that’s all true, but what the article neglects to emphasize (and what makes me dismiss the aforementioned sugar-coated positive outcomes of such a situation) is that the circumstances are still highly stressful, traumatic, and–in this case–completely unnecessary. How so? Because the other evidence is overwhelming. And any further clarification required from witnesses could, as I mentioned in this post, be solicited by an intermediary court clerk to drastically reduce the contact required between the victims and the accused without eroding the validity of the trial. The overwhelming evidence is listed in this article:

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