Friday, February 5, 2010

Identifying Rape Victims

Yesterday, I noticed that Nicholas Kristof's New York Times blog addressed an issue that confronted me as a young reporter.

Kristof asks, "Is it ever OK to name rape victims?"

That is something that journalism students and practicing journalists have wrestled with for many, many years. It is not a pleasant matter to think about. It is a brutal crime that frequently stigmatizes its victims. Many people think it is a crime of sex and lust, but, in fact, it is a crime of violence and power. The only thing remotely sexual about it is the weapon that is wielded.

Anyway, after I graduated from college, I took a job as a general assignment reporter, which meant that I wore many hats. One of the things I covered was the police beat. On most mornings, that meant that I went to the city police headquarters and the county sheriff's office and looked over their incident reports from the previous 24 hours.

I was working for an afternoon paper in a small town in central Arkansas where, more often than not, a police report turned out to be the riveting account of a fender bender on a side street or a rural road. The really intriguing reports generally told the tales of residential break–ins while the owners were at work and their children were in school.

I also was assigned to cover many of the trials that were held locally while I remained in that job (and, trust me, there were a lot more trials than you might think, considering the county only had about 50,000 residents at the time). So, if there was a high–profile case, chances were good that I would get to cover it from start to finish — literally.

Often, the standing assignment of police beat and the more random assignment of a trial led to some overlap. That was unavoidable, really. A police reporter gets to know some of the people in local law enforcement. Not all of them, of course. But some of them. And sometimes, due to the nature of their work, those police officers or sheriff's deputies were called as witnesses at trials.

That was never a problem for me. Most of the time they testified about things that were undeniable facts, such as "Mr. X resided at such–and–such address, and his lifeless body was found at that address on the morning of whatever date." Clearly, if Mr. X had not been murdered, it would have been pretty pointless to hold a trial. And, if the police officer who was testifying also was the one who found the body, he was merely confirming when it was found. Such testimony rarely, if ever, provoked an objection from the defense.

There was one case that was a deviation from the norm. It involved a law enforcement officer — I must admit, I can't remember if he was local or county — who was accused of what would probably be called "date rape" today.

I didn't know that officer. If memory serves, he had only been on the force for a couple of months and he was either off duty or on his own beat whenever I came by the sheriff's office and the police station in the mornings. But I had heard his name mentioned — typically in a neutral context.

When I saw him in court, it occurred to me that he was a bear of a man. His accuser was a tiny, petite woman.

They both testified. They agreed they had gone out on a date on the evening in question. And then they returned to the young man's apartment for a nightcap.

Predictably, I suppose, that is where the stories went their separate ways.

In her version of events, he was on top of her the minute he closed the front door, overpowering her, which was not hard to imagine, given his considerable height, weight and strength advantage. In his version, she was the aggressor — and, it seemed to me, he was a bit boastful about how many times she forced him to make love to her that night.

In the past, the officer's colleagues had rarely mentioned his name to me — and then only in the most neutral of ways. I never got the sense that he had any enemies or close friends, but at the trial, it seemed that all his colleagues came up to me at one time or another during breaks to tell me what a fine person he was, how strong he was, how dedicated — and many repeated rumors that reflected poorly on the accuser's integrity.

The trial went on for a couple of days, as I recall, and I remember returning to the office that first afternoon to write part of the story for the next afternoon's edition. We planned to add whatever we could from the next morning's proceedings during the court's lunch break, just before the paper went to press, but this way we had two–thirds or even three–quarters of it done.

The accuser had begun her testimony that afternoon, and I remember asking my editor if I should name her in my story. I was young and new to my job, and I guess I was still operating under the influence of my college instructors. I couldn't recall much discussion about what to do when covering trials, but I did recall that my professors always stressed the importance of spelling witnesses' names accurately, for the record, and most seemed to believe in a policy of not naming a rape victim — but I don't recall anything being said about what one should do if an alleged rape victim took the stand.

For some reason, I believed, at the time, it was illegal to name a rape victim in print.

I have learned since then that whether a rape victim's name is printed is entirely a policy matter for the publication. As a courtesy, most outlets do not disclose the name of a victim, a practice that probably dates back to the days when there were laws on the books in some states prohibiting the publication of a rape victim's name. But most, if not all, such laws have been struck down as unconstitutional interference with a free press.

That was the only time that a rape trial was held in that county while I worked for that newspaper so I don't really know what its normal policy on naming rape victims was in those days. But on that occasion, my editor told me that, if she testified, she was on the record. And we published the names of anyone who went on the record.

So I included her name in the story. When she accused the police officer from the witness stand, I attributed her quote to her by name. And I felt bad about it, too.

Because I was convinced that she was telling the truth. And I knew that the town I lived in wasn't very enlightened, which probably meant she was ostracized for what she did.

I always sensed a strong undercurrent of subservience to authority in that county, and I always wondered if the law enforcement agency where the officer worked, whether it was local or county, had used its influence to force the newspaper's management to publish the accuser's name, perhaps as part of a subtle smear campaign — although the jurors in the case were warned repeatedly by the judge not to read any newspaper accounts of the trial.

Well, my articles never quoted anything that wasn't part of the official record, and, as far as I know, none of the jurors ever read what I wrote about the case — at least before they reached their verdict. But I guess the jury bought the officer's story. He was acquitted.

The look on his accuser's face as he left the courtroom in triumph was beyond words.

That image has stayed with me all my adult life.

And I have always regretted whatever role I may have played in it.

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