THE BLOG
05/07/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Objection, Your Honor

Dallas District Judge Jeanine Howard's startling sentence for 20 year-old Sir Young, who admitted to raping a 14 year-old in 2011, has many in this community simply awestruck, and not in a good way. Young's sentence of five years of deferred probation (with 45 days in jail) coupled with Judge Howard's comments to the press, point to - how shall I say this politely - some significant gaps in knowledge and sensitivity.

Now, I am married to a criminal district court judge, and I understand how difficult this job is. I know that judges are human and make mistakes. I know that words can be taken out of context, and that I wasn't sitting in the courtroom to hear the evidence. Even when taking that into consideration, however, the victim-blaming (which some might call attempted slut-shaming) behavior of Judge Howard is shocking.

Howard questioned the victim during the proceedings on more than one occasion about whether or not she cried during the rape. This judge of many years has no doubt heard countless sexual assault experts testify that a rape victim may respond in any number of ways during an attack, and so whether or not the victim cried during the rape is entirely irrelevant.

Michigan State University professor of psychology, Rebecca Campbell, has conducted research on rape for more than twenty years. In a seminar for the National Institute of Justice, she discusses the hormonal and emotional effects of sexual assault on the brain. She reports that during a sexual assault, a victim "may be very flat or incredibly monotone which can seem counter-intuitive to both the victim and other people."

It is the job of defense attorneys to zealously fight for his/her client, and it is a common practice among defense attorneys to attempt to discredit victims or witnesses, so I wouldn't have been surprised if the defense attorney in this case had questioned the victim in this way. If he had, no doubt the prosecutor would have objected, and any judge worth his or her salt would have instructed the defense to knock it off and treat the victim with respect.

So, I ask, what message does it send to that victim, and countless others, when a judge, someone in an esteemed position of power and trust, asks such questions? Might that be perceived as: Did what happen to you really matter? Did it really affect you? Aren't you making much ado about nothing?

Howard's later statement to the press that the now 17-year-old "is not the victim she claims to be" is a further affront to this rape survivor and to all of us who have survived a sexual assault in our lifetimes. Howard references prior sexual activity of the 14 year-old which is again irrelevant, particularly as a young girl of that age cannot give consent to sex. Let's also not forget that it is the defendant whose behavior should be subjected to scrutiny, not the victim.

In our Children's Advocacy Center, we served about 2,800 children last year, most of them 9-10 year-old little girls, sexually abused by someone they knew and trusted. Most victims, however, never come forward. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped at some time in their lives.

The effects of a sexual assault are significant, if these wounds are not healed. Countless scholarly articles point to the burden of unprocessed trauma on individuals and society, including high rates of post-traumatic stress, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders - you name it. So much of our nation's sickness stems from a root cause of holding these types of burdens inside and not releasing them to the light of day. And so when someone is brave enough to subject herself to the harsh inquiry of the criminal justice system, we must treat her with compassion and respect. We must guide her to a place of healing, not create new wounds.

Victim blaming has absolutely no place in the courtroom, especially by a judge. Your honor, I object.

Ellen Magnis is Chief of External Affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center. This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Texas Woman's University.

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