Some 19 years ago, Patricia Esparza says she made the choice to tell her ex-boyfriend she was raped. Esparza, a 20-year-old Pomona College student at the time, sought comfort from Gianni Van. So when he suggested they go to a night club to try to find the alleged perpetrator, she agreed. She told a grand jury “the worst that would happen is that he would rough him up.” But the night ended with Gonzalo Ramirez’s death.
Esparza is now sitting in a California jail facing murder charges, after years in which she had become a psychologist and scholar, focusing her research how Latino and urban teenagers cope with loss and conflict. An in-depth by Slate’s Emily Bazelon probes how Esparza went from being a rape victim to facing life in prison.
Recalling the night Ramirez died, Esparza says she felt bullied by Van to tell him who the alleged rapist was. She had been sexually abused by her father as a child, and shut down when she felt threatened. She says she was shocked when they later pulled Ramirez into a car, and an hour later, they brought her to an auto shop where she found him “hanging by chains from the ceiling, beaten and bloody.”
Esparza had been quiet with police for years. They had initially investigated Van, but dropped the charges. She married Van in a pairing of convenience to avoid having to testify against him, but they later divorced. She married again, had a daughter, and moved to France, where both she and her husband cultivated successful careers. She never revealed what she knew about that night.
“Esparza is not blameless, as her own account makes clear,” Bazelon writes. “She missed repeated chances to go to the police and tell the truth, including after she saw Ramirez hanging by those chains in the hours before he was killed. But I see no evidence in the record—none at all, from any other suspects or witnesses—that she intended his murder or helped plan it. And yet: Esparza is facing life in prison.”
In 2010, she received emails from detectives in which they wrote in bold letters that she was “NOT A SUSPECT,” and said they would like some help with new leads. Her lawyer advised her not to cooperate. And her refusal to talk to police was later cited by the officer who issued a warrant for her arrest.
In 2012, she was arrested while traveling through the United States. A second lawyer (the first one died) did not negotiate any immunity for her in exchange for her providing 2.5 hours of testimony. She was given the choice to plead guilty to manslaughter and serve three years in prison or face a life sentence and charges of murder. She declined the guilty plea, saying it would be a lie. While charges were initially dropped against Van, he and several others who were at the scene that night have now pleaded guilty to murder. Esparza has gained many vocal advocates, including in the sexual assault community. But Santa Ana prosecutors remain committed to punishing her, too.
Prosecutors might have had reason to threaten Esparza with charges as coercion to get her to cooperate, or or retribution for Esparza’s refusal to come forward earlier (for which she could be charged with obstruction of justice). But even when asked directly by Bazelon, prosecutors have not provided evidence that Esparza played any other role in the murder. Instead, evidence suggests Esparza was scared and inexperienced, traumatized by a history of child abuse corroborated by her other family members. She says she first reported the alleged assault to a college nurse who did nothing about it, before telling Van.
“Shutting down was the only way I could deal with the harrowing experience” of being abused, she told Bazelon. “I felt utterly helpless and just unable to protect myself.”