In 2012, a judge in Sacramento placed a 17-year-old rape victim in juvenile detention because she failed to appear in court on two occasions to testify against the suspected 37-year-old serial rapist who abducted and raped her.
Incarcerating Victims Will Not Encourage Reporting Sex Assault
Writing in an April 2012 edition of Ms.blog, Angi Becker Stevens made these observations about the judge’s decision to jail the victim:
“It is reasonable for judges and prosecutors to be concerned about women refusing to testify against rapists; such testimony is obviously vital in bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to justice. But if we wish to give more victims the courage to come forward, the solution is certainly not to threaten them with incarceration. The only way survivors of sexual violence will be empowered to seek justice is if we create a culture and a legal system that do not engage in victim shaming. Women need to be able to speak out about sexual violence without fear she’ll be blamed, ridiculed or disbelieved. A culture in which victims are silenced by fear and shame is one in which sexual violence can continue to occur with impunity. By imprisoning a victim, Judge Brown has done nothing to encourage women to testify against perpetrators of sexual violence. Instead, he has added the threat of jail time to the list of reasons why women might be too frightened to report sexual assault in the first place.”
Progressive ideas do not travel to Texas via the interstate. Instead, they meander through back roads, piney woods, and dried up pasture land, much like tumble weeds trying to find an anchor. They travel at speeds comparable the Mule Team Express.
Harris County DA Jails Victim of Sex Assault to Secure Testimony at Trial
So, it should not be surprising that prosecutors sought, and secured, a court order to have a rape victim locked up in jail over the last Christmas holiday season after what the Houston Chronicle called “a psychological breakdown” while testifying about her 2013 sexual assault.
Defense Lawyer Stands for Rights of Victims
The newspaper reported that Sean Buckley, the attorney now representing the rape victim identified only as “Jane Doe,” delivered a letter on August 1 to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson requesting that her office investigate whether the prosecutors responsible for the jailing of Ms. Doe violated state law (“official oppression”).
This letter was preceded by a federal lawsuit filed by the victim alleging that the unlawful arrest and seizure violated her civil rights.
“I have made a colorable claim that employees in your office engaged in official oppression in their treatment of my client,” Buckley said in his letter to Anderson, referencing the lawsuit. “This is a very serious matter that deserves a full, independent investigation by a neutral prosecutor with no ties to your office.”
DA Believes Witness Detention Justified by Law
We agree – and we disagree with the view Anderson expressed during a press conference on Monday, August 1, that “There is no reason to believe that anyone in this situation – the prosecutor or the judge – believed that what they were doing was unauthorized by the law.”
The bare facts of this incident are fairly simple, and cast reasonable doubt on Anderson’s view of the situation.
Homeless and Bi-Polar: A Bad Combination for Justice in Harris County
Jane Doe had a history of being a homeless person suffering from a serious bipolar disorder when called to testify last December against her alleged attacker. She suffered what a local media source described as “mental health crisis” while testifying against her accused rapist. She was hospitalized for ten days recovering from this mental breakdown.
Victim Wanted to be Released
During her hospital stay, Ms. Doe informed prosecutor Nicholas Socias that she would not testify in court again and wanted to be released.
DA Wants Her Available to Testify
Apparently concerned that Ms. Doe would disappear into the world of homelessness once released from custody, the prosecutor spoke to Ms. Doe’s mother about her daughter staying in the mother’s home until the trial was over. The mother rejected this prospect, saying it would be “too stressful” to have her daughter in the house.
So to ensure that Ms. Doe would be available as a witness against her alleged attacker, Socias requested that the court issue what is called an “attachment order”—an order that allows a witness to be held in jail without bond pending disposition of the court proceeding. The trial judge issued the order.
Victim/Witness Placed in General Population and Assaulted
Jane Doe was then released from the hospital and placed in general population in the Harris County Jail—a facility known for its inmate-on-inmate violence; the same facility where her alleged assailant was housed. She was physically assaulted by another inmate.
In effect, the DA’s Office allowed its own victim-witness to be attacked for being a “snitch” in the eyes of her fellow inmates.
DA Anderson conceded something “went wrong” in the handling of the Jane Doe case and admitted that the “fault” for it rested with her office.
To prevent such future episodes, the DA plans to appoint an “inner office tracker” to monitor jail inmates being held on witness bonds and bench warrants to make sure they are not forgotten as Jane Doe was. She also said her office would be pushing the Texas Legislature to enact a law that would allow inmates like Jane Doe to be appointed an attorney to represent their interests.
DA Apologizes for an “Awful Situation”
DA Anderson apologized to Jane Doe, saying: “I’m very sorry about how all of this played out …it was just an awful situation, and I regret it very much.”
The “situation” was indeed awful.
No witness, especially a victim of a sexual assault, should be treated (mistreated is probably a better word) as was Jane Doe. This is a horrific example of “victim shaming,” made exceedingly worse by Ms. Doe’s mental health issues.
Harris County Sheriff’s Role
There seems to be a lot of victim shaming going around in Harris County these days. Grits for Breakfast recently pointed to the Harris County Sheriff’s Department laying the blame for inmate deaths due to “antibiotic resistant staph infections” on the inmates themselves—not the deplorable conditions of the jail or its woefully inadequate medical delivery system.
Harris County jail officials, we believe, are also just as responsible for Ms. Doe’s mistreatment as was the DA’s office. Her federal lawsuit charges that she was misclassified as a perpetrator of a sexual assault—not the victim of one, as reported in the New York Times. The lawsuit also alleges that she was denied medication and was punched in the face by a jail guard.
Jail officials should not have placed her in general population but rather in protective custody where she would have been more closely monitored. We suspect that jail officials will claim that she was responsible for her own assault and probably should have been disciplined for it. That seems to be the mindset of Harris County jail officials.
Criminal Justice Reforms Needed
The Texas Legislature needs to step up and address the issue of individuals being held in county jails on witness bonds and bench warrants without the benefit of counsel in order to prevent horrible incidents like the Jane Doe case. These individuals, many of whom are victims of violence crimes, come from the ranks poverty and social disenfranchisement. They lack the means to hire an attorney.
We would ask this question: would Jane Doe have experienced the same level of mistreatment from the Harris County justice system had she been a person of financial means and social status?
We think not.
And therein lies the injustice.