“NOBODY KNOWS RAPISTS BETTER”
In Sex Crimes Then, (included free in this two-book package) the woman the press described as one of America’s toughest prosecutors grippingly recounts her career and in the process offers a searing indictment of our justice system. Included are close-ups of her most harrowing cases, among them the predatory pedophile who headed a boy’s club to get closer to victims; the serial rapist who terrorized the city as “The Stalker”: and the violent incest offender who tortured his “property” (his own daughter.)
“My first lesson about sex crimes prosecution,” Vachss writes, “was that perpetrators were not the only enemy.” She shows how the system is heavily weighted against victims. In what has come to be her trademarked term, she brands as “rape collaborators” police officers and judges whose ingrained attitudes aid and comfort criminals; elected officials and attorneys concerned only with their political futures; fickle juries seemingly impervious to compelling evidence; and a legal system skeptical of cries of rape.
Asked in a 2007 interview in The Guardian “Does she miss putting rapists in prison? ‘Hell, yes,’ says Vachss. Would she return to the front line? ‘Am I willing to put up with the politics of running for office, or the backstabbing and infighting of being an employee of an elected official? That’s a much tougher question.’” [Julie Bindel, “The rapists’ enemy”]
Sex Crimes Now finds Alice Vachss, still the same, back in the trenches insisting to a jury: “I don’t have to prove motive. The motive for rape is rape,” and battling a system hell-bent on freeing a monster. Inevitably, Vachss reached a point of no return, “Years before, Richard A. Brown’s response when he was asked why he fired me was that I’d done an excellent job. Ever-aware of the politics of prosecution, Brown had waited until he was elected, not simply appointed, before taking it upon himself to decide how much weight ‘doing an excellent job’ would or would not carry in his office. All these years later this new DA was about to make the same decision.”
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from a Past profile in The Guardian:
The rapists’ enemy
Alice Vachss was a brilliantly successful sex crime prosecutor in New York, winning 80% of cases. In Britain, the conviction rate for rape is only 5%. She tells Julie Bindel what we need to learn – and fast.
First published on Fri 1 Jun 2007 04.04 EDT
Alice Vachss was once described by a judge as “a woman who drinks blood for breakfast”, but with her soft voice, small frame, and infectious laugh she initially seems anything but. It’s only when she starts talking about putting rapists behind bars that the description begins to make sense.
Once one of America’s most successful sex crime prosecutors, Vachss is in the UK this week, hoping to pass on her expertise to our criminal justice system. We certainly need it. With an estimated 47,000 rapes here each year, convictions running at a pathetic 5.6%, and much media coverage skewed towards anomalous stories of women who “cry rape”, her visit could not be more timely.
In her mid-20s Vachss spent a year volunteering as a counsellor in a male prison. It was there she realised that, to help criminals, she needed to understand the justice system, so she took a law degree and worked as a public defender. After this, she undertook a project that considered the needs of rape victims in criminal trials. “They all said the same thing,” says Vachss, “they needed a good prosecutor. So that is what I decided to become.”
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In the 1980s she ran the special victims bureau of the Queens district attorney’s office in New York, and brought the sex crimes conviction rate up to an astonishing 80%. She prosecuted more than 100 serious crimes from referral to verdict, including rape, child sexual assault, elder abuse, domestic violence, cult abuse and homicide.
Vachss’s war on sex crime has made her powerful enemies in the US. After successfully prosecuting an influential man – a former director of a boys’ club – for sexually abusing boys in his care, she found out that he had done a deal with a supreme court judge. In return for pleading guilty to 89 charges against him, including the rape of young boys, he was told he would be given a non-custodial sentence so long as he agreed to tour the US warning about the evils of paedophilia; both he and the sentencing judge were to be paid speakers. Due to Vachss’s persistence, the convicted paedophile was eventually given a prison sentence, but she was sacked shortly afterwards in a departmental “re-organisation”. “Our district attorneys are elected officials,” she says, “which leaves the prosecutorial system wide open to corruption.”
During her time as a prosecutor, she saw few acquittals, but she still remembers every one. “It feels like you’ve been punched in the gut,” she recalls. “The hardest part is that you then have to tell the victim.”
Since leaving the special victims unit, Vachss, 58, has dedicated her time and energy to educating those within the criminal justice system on how best to investigate and prosecute sex crimes. She coined the term “collaborators” to describe those – including some judges, defence lawyers and jurors – who “provide a support system to rapists”. “My first lesson about sex crimes prosecution,” Vachss has noted, “is that perpetrators are not the only enemy.”
What are the biggest obstacles when it comes to rape convictions? Vachss is unequivocal. Prejudices held by jurors, and the reluctance, both here and in the US, to bring “difficult” cases to court, such as those involving prostitutes, drug and alcohol users, and teenage girls (all of whom are often seen as unreliable witnesses). I sat in on one such case with Vachss when she first came to the UK on her mission, 10 years ago. I clearly remember the look of shock and disgust on her face when she noticed the prosecutor asleep at her desk as the 15-year-old complainant was being torn apart by the defence.
“At least in my experience, there is no such thing as a sex crimes prosecution that is not ‘against all the odds’,” says Vachss. “What I am particularly proud of is that we took even the most difficult cases despite that fact, so long as we ourselves were convinced of the defendant’s guilt.” In the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service only take sex crime cases to court if it believes that there is at least a 50% chance of a conviction. This often results in the more complicated cases, or those involving victims who are considered less than pure, being dropped.
What does Vachss think of the UK criminal justice system’s approach to rape? At least the UK is facing the problem, she says. “You are keenly aware of the tiny percentage of rape cases resulting in convictions. In the US, our prosecutors simply release ‘win statistics’ on the trials themselves, rather than how many reports to the police finally resulted in a conviction.”
Vachss is critical of other aspects of the UK’s approach, though. The advantage of the US system is that prosecutors in the special victims units work exclusively on sex crimes and receive intensive and ongoing training from experts. From the moment a rape is reported these prosecutors play a pivotal role, working with police to investigate the case, and developing an intimate understanding of the details of the crime. This gives them an obvious advantage when it comes to presenting their case clearly and persuasively in court. By comparison, in the UK, the first time the complainant will meet the prosecutor is at the trial.
Why does she advocate the use of special-ised prosecutors in sex crime cases? “We need more accountability, both from rapists and from the systems that are supposed to do something about them. Having sufficiently skilled specialised prosecutors meets both those goals – either we get better results, or we know who to look to if we don’t.”
She would ultimately like to see the birth of a kind of super-lawyer, highly trained in the minutiae of sex crime, including legislation, forensic science and victim/jury psychology (being equipped to explain to jurors, for instance, that if a complainant giggles in the witness box, it could be the result of trauma).
Although the majority of sex crimes are committed by men, Vachss does not let women off the hook. Having prosecuted a number of cases of child abuse where the women were complicit – by doing nothing about the abuse, or even, in some cases, holding the child down to be raped – she is clear that women are not always victims of men’s dominance. “There [is] a segment of the battered women’s advocates community who argue that if the mother was being abused as well, that she could not be held accountable for failing to protect the child. I think that is a profound insult to the tremendously courageous battered women who do find a way to put their children’s safety first.”
Vachss also admits that female jurors are often bad news when it comes to rape trials – they can be particularly judgmental of the complainant in order to convince themselves that it could never happen to them. In 2005, a survey for Amnesty International found that 5% of women (compared with 3% of men) believed that a woman was “totally responsible” for being raped if she was drunk.
“I can be very harsh about juror prejudices, but I recognise too that we set a difficult task for them,” says Vachss. “A responsible sex crimes prosecutor has to present them with the most information she can, and that requires that she learn skills and understand a variety of forensic sciences that the ordinary prosecutor does not need.” It is also essential, she believes, to learn to dispel the common rape myths that play such a key role in the low conviction rate.
Does she miss putting rapists in prison? “Hell, yes,” says Vachss. Would she return to the front line? “Am I willing to put up with the politics of running for office, or the backstabbing and infighting of being an employee of an elected official? That’s a much tougher question.”
For Vachss, there is no giving up until justice is done, for rapists and all of their victims. “What I want is for people to feel horror about what rape really is,” she says, “to feel indignation that we tolerate it”.