Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The wrong messenger

Judge: Justice depends on the bravery of victims

This should be an easy case to decide. At least in the court of public opinion. A rape victim says she is too scared to testify. The judge releases the accused and puts the victim in jail.

Surely he's guilty of, well, poor judgment. What was he thinking?

Patrick Dinkelacker, a respected Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge, Friday sentenced the 33-year-old woman to 10 days in jail for contempt.

The case had been continued three times. The accused had been in jail for 78 days. We're supposed to presume he's innocent. What if he is? Jail is never a nice place, but I'm told it's particularly unpleasant for those accused of sex crimes.

"I'm looking at the file," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen on Monday. "We had a good case, but we needed testimony from the victim."

Bridget Kelly, who came home to Cincinnati to recover from injuries when she was raped in Texas, remembers how she felt after she was attacked last year. "Whenever I heard the bell on the (hospital) ICU door, I was afraid of who it was. You feel so vulnerable. You see violence everywhere."

Bridget never had to testify in court. Her attacker confessed. But she has since "testified" publicly ever since, telling what happened. "Being a rape victim is like being in a secret club - so much shame and secrecy. It keeps women from seeking the help they need." She gave a small groan when I described the situation in Cincinnati. "Victims need to be supported, not threatened. What was he thinking?"

It seemed time to ask the judge himself.

"Thank you," he said Monday. "For asking. I did not fly just off the handle. I was trying to look at my responsibility to keep the bad guys off the street. More and more witnesses are failing to appear. If we're going to have justice, people have to be brave."

He says he had to send a message. "If victims don't participate in the system, we don't have justice." He is thinking, he says, of a rapist getting back on the street because the victim wouldn't testify. He is thinking, he says, of the cases stacking up while this one was continued three times.

The system. The notoriously overburdened system designed to keep order - and, not incidentally, to keep all of us safe - depends on judges, attorneys, police - all trained to do the jobs they've chosen. But in the end, it sometimes comes down to one person, someone pulled into the system not by choice but by terrible circumstance. We ask this person - the victim - to be brave, to protect the rest of us.

And, let's be frank, we ask a rape victim to be ready to be humiliated in a way that a victim of theft is not: And you, sir, were you not asking to be mugged? Were you not wearing an expensive suit and carrying far too much cash? His underwear does not become Exhibit A.

This case is the fifth in Dinkelacker's court since Aug. 25 to be dismissed for "want of prosecution." He could have sent his message through burglary victims, a witness in a drug abuse case or a victim in a stolen property case.

Even in that most unforgiving of courts - the court of public opinion - there is no stigma in having your VCR stolen, no "secret club" of people who have been burgled. The judge needed to send an important message.

He used the wrong messenger.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

• Oct. 1 update: Rape suspect back in jail
• Sept. 30 update: Judge releases jailed woman
• Editorial: Intimidated witnesses
• Saturday story: Rape victim jailed, accused free

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