court can be worse than crime

Chanel Miller wrote her memoir, titled ‘Know My Name’, to give readers a window into sexual assault and the toll on victims from prosecuting it afterwards in the legal system. Chanel was drinking at a party, blacked out, and then a young man took her to a deserted area close by. He removed her clothing and began sexual contact, but some other men passing by saw what was happening and intervened before he was able to finish. Chanel has no memory of this, and recalls only waking up in a hospital.

 She describes the initial medical exams, anxiety as she learns what happened, and the wave of guilt, relief, and trepidation as she eventually is reunited with her sister and other friends who had been at the party with her and had no idea what happened.

While of course that experience was horrifying, it gradually becomes clear that the biggest injuries and deepest scars were still to be inflicted. They would all stem from her intuitive, matter of fact acquiescence to the request by district attorney office that she cooperate in pressing charges.

Trauma from the legal system

Her assailant, Brock Turner, was an accomplished swimmer with eyes on the Olympics. His family hired an expensive attorney to defend him tooth and nail against the charges.

Before even the first hearing, Chanel finds that the court case has taken over her life. Her sister will need to testify at the initial hearing, so she finds a way to reschedule tests in college and take off work. Then the hearing is postponed, making that all for nothing, and her sister does it again. Then it’s postponed again, and her sister has to find a way to travel back home to attend court at an even less convenient time. Should Chanel feel guilty her sister is now captive to the legal calendar? Chanel’s own life is constantly on hold due to the need to be available for legal proceedings at short notice.

Brock’s best defense is consent. So his attorney aggressively questions whether Chanel might have in fact desired or enjoyed what Brock did to her. Does she ever hook up with guys she meets at parties? Is she in a relationship, and could she be on the rocks with her boyfriend and looking to make him jealous with a more handsome guy? How much does she usually drink, and what did she expect when she consumed so much alcohol?

All this plays out in the public courtroom, for her family and friends to hear. And as the story is reported in the news, there are mean, judgmental, uninformed, and hurtful comments online as strangers pass judgment on her and her family.

There are questions about exactly what Brock did, so the state displays to the jury and therefore also to Chanel’s family and the world detailed photos of Chanel’s injuries, including close-ups of her breasts and crotch, taken while she was unconscious and without her knowledge. This is accompanied by detailed, intimate testimony from nurses and doctors about Chanel’s state of mind and reaction as she first learned of her assault. Making that all available to a voyeuristic media for the public to dissect and comment about online is necessary to be able to share it with the jury, and the district attorney believes that’s legally advantageous to do.

The light sentence

In the end, Brock is found guilty. At sentencing, Chanel reads a deeply personal, moving, very lengthy victim impact statement that is later read by millions of people online and on t.v. Brock reads a few words about how he wishes he hadn’t done the thing that got him in so much trouble. Brock’s father tells the judge how much suffering the guilty verdict has caused Brock and his family. Dozens of people recount what a nice guy Brock is and bemoan the negative impact the case has had on his educational plans and swimming career. In the end, after the extraordinarily long and taxing legal saga, the judge sentences Brock to just 6 months in jail, only half of which he will actually be required to serve.

Chanel writes bitterly that most sexual assault victims never even get to take the first steps up the mountain of justice. There is insufficient evidence or no arrest. Some get onto the foothills, but then lack of legal resources forces them to give up. Others get into the climb, but then they are not deemed credible enough or sufficiently sympathetic for a jury to take their side. But here, she has ascended to the very summit, achieved a guilty verdict at trial, but now found that the image of justice atop the mountain was really a mirage. The judge wrung his hands plenty about how twenty misguided but confused minutes derailed Brock’s promising development into a well educated professional and champion swimmer, but there was far less appreciation of how the assault had impacted her.

But Chanel’s case does bring change. Public outcry over the lenient six month sentence leads to a campaign that succeeds in having Chanel’s judge recalled. California passes a minimum mandatory sentence law so that future sexual assault perpetrators will be punished more severely. And Chanel’s widely read statement raises awareness of sexual assault in general and specifically the many difficulties and obstacles victims must navigate.

Advantages of Restorative Justice

I question whether these legal moves towards harsher sentences are well advised, though, and I also wonder whether they are even what Chanel would have wanted. At the sentencing, she notes numerous times that neither Brock, his father, nor any of the other people speaking on Brock’s behalf ever look in her direction. When Brock is released from prison, a reporter asks if he has anything to say to the victim. Chanel, watching on the news, tenses with anticipation, but Brock just looks down and shuffles on his way.

What Chanel seems to desire most of all is for Brock to admit he had no right to try to take advantage of her when she was passed out and that what he did was wrong. For Brock to acknowledge the hurt his legal defense caused her. And for Brock to examine how his wealth and privilege contributed to his conduct, and to transform into someone who will not victimize women anymore.

A process of restorative justice would have been infinitely better than what Chanel went through. What was needed was for someone to sit with Brock and help him understand why all the excuses and justifications he came up with to explain away his conduct don’t make it right. That even though it was just one thing he did for a few minutes that Chanel doesn’t even remember, the emotional and psychological impact was still large. And that money, connections, and access to high priced lawyers doesn’t mean that he isn’t responsible for what he does.

Facilitated private interaction between Brock, his family, and the community that hosted the drunken party on the one side and Chanel, along with her family and friends that were impacted by what happened on that night on the other, could have done a world of good.

The legal system asks what laws were broken, who broke them, and how much should the law breaker be punished. Restorative justice looks at the matter differently. The restorative questions are who was harmed, what do they need, and who is obligated to help them meet those needs. For healing, those may be the most important questions. There is already some movement towards restorative justice in these types of cases. You can read an explanation of how restorative justice is used in sexual violence cases by Sujatha Baliga here on Vox.

Respect for human rights requires a strong system of justice. But sometimes the court system itself causes injury, as it exposes victims to public scrutiny and encourages the accused to make excuses and blame others rather than take responsibility. Restorative justice may often be a way for the legal system to accomplish its goal of deterring wrongdoing while at the same time either helping the victim heal, or at the very least borrowing the credo of the medical profession and doing no further harm. Chanel shows us in moving, personal terms how the quest for justice unfortunately can be more painful to the victim than the wrong that we are ostensibly trying to right.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *