How do prosecutors decide which rapes to take to court? Is the deck already stacked against some rape victims? These are two of the questions Anna North tries to answer in her fine two-part article at Jezabel about a young graduate student at the University of Iowa. Rebecca Epstein turned to North to tell her story, because a prosecutor refused to give her a chance to face her rapist in court. Epstein insisted that her real name be used in the article.
Warning: Please be aware that some of the material discussed below may be disturbing to some.
In part 1, “How a Rape Case Went Off the Rails,” describes the crime and its consequences:
Epstein…told me she was violently anally raped on the night of February 16, by a man she had been on a date with, in his apartment. She stayed at the apartment for about an hour afterward, fearful that he might hurt her further if she left. During this time, she had vaginal intercourse with him, which she describes as nonconsensual but nonviolent. When she felt it was safe to leave, she went to a hospital and had a rape kit done. The next day, she filed a police report. She says detectives were largely respectful in their treatment of the case.
Now here comes the really creepy part. The man who raped Epstein wrote a letter to her not long after the crime. The letter is in some ways even more disturbing than the violent crime the writer committed. In the letter, he tries to justify what he did by implying that he’s really a nice guy who respects women. He says that Epstein should have told him ahead of time that if she said no it really meant NO. He tells her she didn’t fight hard enough, so he didn’t realize she didn’t want it. You can read lengthy quotes from this disturbing letter at the link, but here’s one shocking quote:
Of the alleged rape, he writes, “Clearly, you did not enjoy it […] But you must believe that I believed with all my heart and soul at the time that you were overcoming your reluctance, and trying to get into it.” He adds,
I hope intensely that this letter has made you see that I am not malicious or misogynistic, and that I’ve strived earnestly to respond to your needs and desires. It may be too late for me, but I hope that in the future, when playing rough with a guy, these explanations might guide better behavior. For example, we should have agreed at the very beginning upon a safety word that would mean explicitly: “this no does not mean you can keep trying or that I’m reluctant, it means you better shut it the fuck down.” If we had such a word, and you used it, there would be no confusion and I would never, ever have violated it.
WTF?! I wonder how many times this guy pulled this with women? He even suggests the possibility that they could get together and “play again.”
Epstein says this man “choked” her and “pinned [her] down.” In addition, she said “my ribs are all fucked up, possibly broken, my ankle is sprained, i hurt all over, i’m bloody.”
But a month after the attack, Epstein was told by Asst. County Attorney Anne Lahey that she was not going to have the rapist arrested or prosecuted. There is disagreement between Epstein and Lahey as to why and how this decision was reached. Epstein has bipolar disorder and she claims that was one factor. The fact that she stayed in the rapist’s apartment afterward was another.
She said that an Iowa jury would see my behavior as too promiscuous and crazy, and they would judge me and side with the defendant. She also said she didn’t think there was a very good chance I would win, so she was trying to protect me by not putting me through it, and I indicated that I would rather go through it and lose than not be able to face him in court.
Lahey was unconvinced. Epstein says she finally asked, “so you’re saying that because I have a mental illness, anyone who rapes me basically gets a free pass?” She says Lahey replied, “Yes.”
Lahey claims that Epstein’s psychological disorder was not a factor in the decision, but would not say what the alternative reasons were.
In part 2 of the Jezabel article, North investigated whether in fact women with psychological disorders were less likely to receive justice after being raped.
A number of experts confirmed that this may be the case. For example:
I talked to Karla Miller, Executive Director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program. She told me that county attorneys can be reluctant to prosecute rape cases in which the victim has mental illness, due to concerns that the jury won’t see the victim as credible. If that’s the case, she said that victims can be “revictimized” by defense attorneys who make their illness — and any other vulnerabilities they can think of — an issue in the trial. Miller explained that if an attorney felt such revictimization might occur, it could be a good decision not to prosecute, but that this decision was “case-dependent.” She added that it was “absolutely not” fair that people with mental illnesses had a harder time getting justice.
Miller also noted, chillingly, that some rapists actually target people with mental illnesses or other disabilities, because they know victims with these conditions will have a harder time taking them to court.
It is definitely true that rapists, who are predators, choose potential victims who are vulnerable. They tend to attack smaller, weaker women and women they sense are psychologically troubled.
I just want to say that I don’t like the terms “mental illness” and “mentally ill.” In the field, the term is “psychological disorder.” There is no illness that is strictly physical or “mental,” including cancer and heart disease.
Some psychological disorders are very serious–like schizophrenia, some don’t interfere that much with a person’s life once she gets help from medication and/or therapy. Bipolar disorder is a very manageable issue, and people with this disorder usually are not out of touch with reality. They simply have wider mood swings than a typical person.
Juries need to be educated about rape and about psychological disorders. I realize that defense attorneys will use anything to discredit a victim, but Rebecca Epstein wanted to face her attacker in court and tell her story. I think it’s very likely that the prosecutor in this case was fearful that a jury would be biased against Epstein not only because this was a date rape, but also because she suffers from bipolar disorder.
That is just plain wrong. Now the man who raped Epstein will continue to behave as he did with Epstein. He now knows he can get away with rape, especially if he chooses a victim with psychological issues. He will rape more women. Every women who comes in contact with him is in danger. And his name is a secret so far.