After 30 years, Kathleen Ham will confront her rapist in court. The trial against him three decades ago resulted in a hung jury; now, DNA evidence links him to Ham’s rape, as well as the rapes of at least 24 other women.
Now, I have mixed feelings about this article. But one thing it does an excellent job of is showing how disgustingly flawed our criminal justice system was (and in many ways still is) when it comes to sexual assault survivors.
During her examination at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Ms. Ham recalled, she put up a front of cool control. The doctor’s official report cast doubt on whether she had been raped. She appeared too calm, he wrote.
The night after the attack, when Ms. Ham sought refuge in the home of old friends, a street noise made her scream. “That was when I realized that my life was taken away from me,” she said.
Then came the trial. Under the law at the time, the prosecutors had to prove that force was used on Ms. Ham, and that the rape was consummated. They had to have a witness.
Mr. Worrell’s defense lawyer, George C. Sena, kept Ms. Ham under cross-examination for a day and a half. His third question was whether she was a virgin. He repeatedly suggested that Ms. Ham had engaged in rough love with a pimp.
“Well, why didn’t you get out then?” Mr. Sena asked. “Were both your legs broken?”
The prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and most of the jurors were men. The two Manhattan district attorneys who re-discovered this case are women. And while that isn’t an argument for the superiority of female DAs, it is illustrative of the positive influence that under-represented groups have had in breaking into various sectors of society. Women’s presence in the police force and in the legal community has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on how sexual assault survivors are treated. It’s certainly far, far from perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was 30 years ago.
What I don’t love about this article is that is paints Ham as more of a victim than a survivor. This is a woman who seems to have had a very successful life, and currently works as a civil rights lawyer. While it’s certainly important to recognize the tremendous impact that sexual assault has on the lives of survivors, it’s important to also look at how much inner strength human beings have — not to portray her as someone who “got over it,” but as someone who had a horrific thing happen to her but who isn’t broken by it. She’s purposely allowing her name to be published to show that rape isn’t shameful for the person who survives it. Thirty years later, she’s putting herself back up on the witness stand, even after having suffered such humiliation there before. That’s bravery.
And the fact that this story is highlighted on the Times website also shows how far our media has come in covering what are traditionally “women’s issues,” and writing about sexual assault. I don’t want to come across as refusing to recognize the continuing, serious problems with our legal system and how we prosecute rape — just look at the Orange County rape case , the Kobe Bryant case, and the half-assed defenses of rape which suggest that if a woman is aroused, she can’t be assaulted. There are lots of problems. But thanks to people like Kathleen Ham and these Manhattan DA’s, things are improving.
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