The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is sparking some outrage for asserting that a former state prison clerk is to blame for her own rape, arguing that she “acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed” to the assault.
Last year, a 24-year-old typist employed at a state prison in Bellefonte, PA, was knocked unconscious and raped by an inmate for nearly half an hour. Her assailant, Omar Best, has a track record of preying on women in this way. He had already been transferred from another state prison for assaulting a different female employee there. Best was convicted of rape in 2012 and charged with attempted rape in 1996, among other crimes.
The victim is now suing. According to the testimony in her suit, after just a month on a job, she told her superiors that inmates were coming into the hallways that led to her office. She specifically said that she felt uncomfortable when Best, who sometimes emptied the trash in that area of the building, would enter her office.
But in response to her lawsuit, Pennsylvania may argue that she could be partly responsible for what happened because she didn’t lock the doors separating her office from the cell block. In documents filed at the beginning of this month, the Attorney General Kathleen Kane argues that there could have been “contributory negligence” at play, a legal term for cases when both the plaintiff and the defendant share some blame in what happened. Kane is likely using the standard language for this line of litigation.
Kane has maintained that contributory negligence arguments are common, and her office is required to outline all possible defense for the case. Nonetheless, sexual assault prevention advocates are upset that the state would even consider this line of argument.
“That is unbelievable,” Anne Ard, the executive director of a local women’s resource center, told the Centre Daily Times. “This kind of victim-blaming is unconscionable and, frankly, makes people distrust the justice system. I am appalled.”
“I think it’s absolutely deplorable to blame the victim in this case,” Jennifer Storm, a sexual assault survivor who serves as a victim advocate for Pennsylvania, told CNN. “It’s not common legalese in rape cases. And it shows a significant lack of sensitivity to not understand the harm this has done to the young woman and the re-victimization she’s going through today.”
Similarly, the victim’s lawyer has called the contributory negligence defense “total bunk” and “victim shaming.” He told the Associated Press that although this may be the way that some lawyers litigate, it’s “insulting to women generally who face rape cases only to be told that it’s their fault.”
Indeed, dealing with the criminal justice system often ends up re-traumatizing the individuals who have experienced sexual assault, something that dissuades many victims from attempting to press charges in the first place. According to a 2000 study conducted by the Department of Justice, many women don’t report their rapes because they don’t think the police will respond seriously enough, or because they’re afraid of being met with hostility. And that can’t be chalked up simply to paranoia; there’s increasing evidence that, since trauma may lead victims to behave erratically, cops are likely to assume that women are lying about being assaulted.
When rape cases do make it through the system, there’s no guarantee they’ll lead to much punishment. One Alabama judge has repeatedly sentenced rapists to probation with no jail time, and has only agreed to reverse some of those decisions after loud public outcry. A Montana judge sparked widespread protests last year after sentencing a 14-year-old girl’s rapist to just 30 days in prison, saying that the victim acted “older than her chronological age” and was “as much in control” of the situation as her rapist. And a Texas judge once had the poor judgment to sentence a rapist to volunteer at a rape crisis center.
This approach to rape cases ultimately sends the message that sexual assault is a crime that isn’t taken seriously in this country. Some advocates argue that combating a broader victim-blaming rape culture must start with making additional reforms to the way that law enforcement handles these incidents.