Former Pennsylvania Prosecutor Kristen Gibbons Feden has a message for defense attorneys who represent accused rapists: the days of victim-shaming are over. Her prosecution partner, Stewart Ryan, agrees saying, “The band aid has been ripped off now” and more than ever victims are feeling strong enough to press charges against their attacker and go to trial.
Credit the #MeToo movement. But also credit the team of Feden and Ryan (along with police investigator Sergeant Richard Schaffer) who delivered to the nation the first major celebrity sex crimes conviction in recent history – that of comedian Bill Cosby.
Last April these two prosecutors convicted “America’s Dad,” as Cosby was once known. He was found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault in the drug-facilitated sex crimes against Andrea Constand, a young woman who worked for Temple University at the time. Cosby, 80, is currently serving 3 to 10 years in prison.
I met this law enforcement trio at the recent Conference on Crimes Against Women in Dallas where Feden was the keynote speaker. Feden made it clear she’s determined to explode the myths surrounding rape and to inform the public about what victims suffer when they choose to go through the rigors of a criminal trial.
First, it is a myth that the perpetrators of rape are “terrifying strangers,” she said. “85% of rapists are known to the victim.” They are trusted family friends, relatives or authority figures.
Second, people (sometimes jurors, unfortunately) doubt a rape victim who doesn’t immediately call police. That doesn’t happen, attorney Feden told the crowd. “Delayed reporting is the norm, it is not the exception. It can take weeks, months, years, even decades” for a victim to tell her story. Often, they keep the horrible secret forever.
(When I spoke to the team both Feden and Ryan agreed states’ statue of limitation laws need to be adjusted to account for this phenomenon of delayed reporting.)
And the third myth this feisty former prosecutor said she wants to dispel is that the victim’s clothing, drinking habits, past sexual history or whether she agreed to kiss the perp has something to do with the crime. “It doesn’t,” Feden said, “It is about whether she gave consent for sex or not. Period.”
Feden’s eyes flashed with anger when we spoke about the Cosby defense team’s courtroom smear tactics against Constand and some of the other women who testified about “Dr. Huxtable’s” past bad acts. Acts which included buying drugs (like Quaaludes) with the express intention of “giving them to women he wanted to have sex with,” as Feden put it.
During the Cosby trial his defense attorney, Kathleen Bliss, said one of the women had slept with “every man on the planet” which, of course, is not even possible. But the ugly image was there for the jury to ponder. Bliss said of another accuser that she was “living the dream now,” testifying in the spotlight, after having been unsuccessful in a comedy career. Lead counsel Tom Mesereau continuously called the woman complainants “cons” who were in it for the money. It was the same argument he used to help acquit suspected child molester Michael Jackson in 2005. It didn’t work this time.
This kind of tarnish of an alleged victim should not be allowed, but it is. Plaintiffs should be given the opportunity to tell their story and let the jury decide if they believe them or not. I asked the prosecutors if judges should limit such incendiary lines of questioning. Both were quick to say that would be difficult as it is the defense lawyer’s “constitutional right to cross examine.”
Ryan told me the most frustrating thing he always heard during his years as a sex crimes prosecutor was, “I believe her…. but.”
“That’s legally that’s not accurate,” he told me, “because if you believe her about sexual assault that’s sufficient to convict (the defendant) of a crime. Ryan thinks the “I believe her … but” mindset is beginning to disappear.
Feden jumped in, “I hope so!” she said emphatically. Ryan interjected, “You took the words right out of my mouth.”
Feden, the diminutive African American mother of two young sons quickly added, “Because no one should be immune from the law. You shouldn’t be immune because you are rich and famous. Because no one is immune from sexual assault, domestic violence, gun violence. No one is immune from any of those things,” she said, “So neither should the offenders be.”
Rape is the crime no one wants to talk about. But it is time to talk about it. And to prosecute it. In fact, because rape is a crime that can steal a person’s soul, it is way past time.