On Anger, Stanford Justice, and Calling a Spade a Spade

I have things to do this week, and other things I wanted to write, but I’m slamming dishes and cutlery so hard in my kitchen right now that the children are looking nervous. Yes, Mommy is angry. Mommy is more than angry. Mommy is FURIOUS.

195629063_2226295908_zI’m angry because in the last two days I have read a handful of articles on what happened when star Stanford swimmer, Brock Allen Turner, was on trial for sexual assault. A woman was at a party with her sister. Like everyone else at the party, they drank too much. But for this one woman, she landed up unconscious behind a dumpster while young Mister Turner shoved his fingers and various other objects (like pine needles. PINE NEEDLES, people!) into her vaginal cavity. The woman’s statement is here (Read it. And make your teens and college age kids read it, too.)

This is why I went to law school, friends. Because when I was sixteen I was already furious about harm done to women and children, and how justice was so inaccessible in so many situations. Women are disbelieved, and abused, and it should not be so. That the law had the ability and the mandate to protect the weakest called to my inner core. I wanted to be on the side of justice. I wanted young women who were pulled behind dumpsters in the dark of night to be able to see their perpetrators punished.

The judge handed down his verdict in the Turner trial: six months for sexual assault, including probation. Sexual assault, even though his offense meets the FBI’s updated definition of rape, and no one has EVER contested that he did in fact do it. The judge didn’t want the perpetrator to have to suffer “too severe” consequences for his actions….

… and this, friends, is where I start to slam dishes in the kitchen. And this is why I quit law: because for all the good that the law can do, in the hands of persuasive lawyers and evidential sleights of hand and spin-in-arguments, justice is so often not done. The victim’s character landed up being on trial. And the perpetrator, after all was said and done, “regretted his night of drinking.”

Not, “regretted his actions in sexually assaulting a woman”.

No, “regretted his night of drinking”.

Just to be clear: drinking is not a crime. Sexual Assault is. Let’s call a spade a spade, folks. But why are we surprised? The perpetrator’s father issued his own statement in which he expresses regret that his son got the harsh sentence he did: “this is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

Not, “this is a steep price to pay for sexually assaulting a woman.”

No, “for 20 minutes of action.”

(you need to picture the sound track in my kitchen. slam. crash. slam.)

As if rape were a quick game of tennis. Or a couple minutes of pick-up basketball with a mate. Not STRIPPING AN UNCONSCIOUS WOMAN and dry humping her in the dark while you shove things up her. By that definition, “twenty minutes of action” could be a shooting spree at a high school, or dicing your friend on the highway at 130 miles per hour while you wind down from your evening of draining a keg. No effing way. Nope.

I wonder what that Father would have called it if it had been his daughter who had gone to a party at college, had too much to drink, and been pulled behind a dumpster? Do you think he would have dismissed it as “twenty minutes of action” and told his daughter to just get over it? I’m willing to bet he would have been crying for blood. Because what you CALL a thing says a great deal about what you believe about a thing. And “sexual action” isn’t the same as “sexual assault.” Being drunk is not the same as being a rapist.

Sin is sin. Rape is rape. Assault is assault. Trauma is trauma.

And Justice should be justice.

Maybe there’s a time for euphemisms: like when we tell our little kids that someone is “sick” instead of “terminally ill”, or “people hurting each other” instead of “genocide”. But there comes a time when we need to grow up and call a spade a spade. We need to name assault (or racism! or misogyny!) for what it is, because failure to do so perpetuates rape culture and myriad other injustices.

I’m not usually a fan of people filing civil claims for punitive damages, but as in the case of OJ Simpson, I hope this woman sues the pants off Brock Turner. Or at least, sues the smarmy smile off his face.

Some thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius verdict

images-2Here are some important things to know about the verdict given about Oscar Pistorius:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing (homicide)

* He was found culpably (blamably) guilty of killing.

Perhaps it is because the South African legal language of culpable homicide is unfamiliar that confounds people abroad’s frustration that he was not found guilty of murder – but in truth, he was found guilt of the equivalent of manslaughter, or murder in the 3rd degree (at least).

I understand people’s frustration that he was found guilty for something less than murder. Believe me, I do.

And yet, I support the judge’s decision and wanted to explain why. Firstly, to be found guilty of murder, there must be evidence not only that the accused actually did the crime, but that they planned to do so. Proving mens rea (or, state of mind) is a necessary component. The rules of evidence require the prosecution to make a case which is beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill.

Anything less than that: like knowing your actions could possibly kill someone, is something less than full murderous intent. The categories of “lesser murder”, like manslaughter, or culpable homicide (depending on your jurisdiction), still hold people responsible for wrongfully taking life, but don’t have the intention-to-kill aspect.

Pistorius’ defense, flimsy and guilt-ridden as it may have been, pleaded that he did not intend to kill. He thought there might be an intruder in the house, they said. He thought his girlfriend was asleep next to him, they said.

In the handful of articles I have read on this, commentators are aghast that this excuse was considered “reasonable doubt”. Here again, I have a little more compassion. Was the threat of an intruder reasonable? Many say not. In an article from The Guardian, the writer commented that the “imaginary body of the paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa has lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story.”

To that, I would just want to say that I don’t think it’s fair to categorize the fear of a violent intruder as a fear of the “bogeyman”, or worse yet, a fear of the “black bogeyman”. For in the South Africa I know, the fear of being attacked in one’s home is real, it extends beyond class and colour lines, and it is a fear based on knowing first-hand stories of people to whom such things have happened.

My own personal collection of stories is sadly not uncommon in South Africa: I’ve been mugged twice, my home has been burgled, I have had to call the cops when my sister’s roommate called me from her closet to say that people had broken in to her house and she was hiding lest she be found. I have prayed for another friend’s elderly aunt and uncle who were beaten and raped in their home at night. I have a colleague whose daughter was murdered. I have a friend who lives in a home with the best security money can by in my mother’s neighborhood, and she has told me of the armed robbery in their home one evening just before dinner.  I have heard more whispered stories of rape than I can bear. I have felt the desire to murder in response.

A friend of mine posted this status update on social media this past week: “So in the news this evening: woman employee raped while at work at Helen Joseph, woman raped by burglars at Stellenbosch res, woman raped by man wanted by police for 10 years, durban high school employs a known paedophile who continues his abuse at the school and four teenagers convicted of raping a 10 year old boy as part of a game. And that’s just tonight’s news.”

World out there: it’s not an unreasonable fear.

Is it plausible to argue that a South African in the middle of the night might fear there was someone in their house wishing them harm? It might be. It might be considered reasonable. In South Africa, perhaps more so than many, many places in the world, it may be enough to raise reasonable doubt as to why someone might respond to a nighttime threat with a gun.

And so, in the tragic case of Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, as much as I also long for justice to be fully realized, I also want to show support for the limits of what the judge could do. For to convict of murder, there needed to be proof of murderous intention, and the proof needed to be beyond reasonable doubt. Not just “he probably meant to kill her”. But “I am absolutely persuaded he intended to kill her, in particular.”

And given the context, and the fear that every single South African deals with – including the black, female judge who was called to weigh this matter, I am not surprised that the ruling was that there was a smidgen of reasonable doubt. Enough to find him guilty of killing her. Just not enough to find him guilty of doing so premeditatively.

And so, as the world awaits the sentence next month, I too am one hoping that he will be sentenced to the maximum jail time for his offense. And I take comfort in these things:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing

* He was found culpably guilty of killing,

and, as a friend rightly pointed out, the most important thing of all is this:

* He still bears the lifelong burden of conscience and the need to be made right before God.

Just a few of my thoughts. For what it’s worth. (Since more than a few have asked for my once-upon-a-time-I-went-to-law-school-in-South-Africa opinion.) Holding my breath for sentencing day, and along with you all, hoping for justice.