Straight news accounts of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision to uphold an appellate court’s decision to overturn the conviction of Richard Fourtin, Jr., convicted in January 2008 of attempted rape of a woman with severe cerebral palsy, read like something out of the darkest Dickens by way of the darkest Kurt Vonnegut.
In a head scratching bit of pretzel logic both courts said the woman didn’t fight enough to qualify as a victim of sexual assault under Connecticut’s rape laws. Citing testimony from a staff member providing support for her and others with disabilities at the Success Village housing complex that said the woman kicked and groaned sometimes when she didn’t get the food she wanted, the two courts ruled the victim’s behavior didn’t meet the law’s standard for vulnerability.
Continuing on, the news accounts, including one from the Connecticut Post, report that the victim “is so physically restricted that she is able to make motions only with her right index finger. In order for the woman to testify during the trial, a small video camera was placed over her and a tray affixed to her chair. On the tray, the prosecutor placed a board printed with the letters of the alphabet along with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on top. After each question, the woman’s left hand would push her right hand, index finger sticking out, across the board to either spell out a word or answer yes or no. It was an exhausting process that lasted four days.”
This is beyond outrageous on so many levels it’s almost impossible to get one’s head around it. It’s so unbelievable it’s tempting to discount it as an aberration and move on. But these kinds of apparent aberrations are still frequent enough to call into question the use of the term.
Ask any woman who finds the burden of proof twisted back on her “innocence” in a sexual assault case. Or ask any woman with a disability who finds herself part of a group that has upwards of a sixty to eighty percent chance (depending on the study) of being the victim of a sexual assault in her lifetime—an assault that is almost equally likely to be ignored or dismissed.
They will tell you that too many laws—this Connecticut one cited by the justices for example– as well as too many of those who make them and sit in judgment of them, remain mired in a Bizarro world of the past. A world where sexual perpetrators become the victims of seduction and people with disabilities can be mischaracterized as too vulnerable to enjoy society’s fruits and too cunningly passive to enjoy its protections all in the same breath.
It would make great satire if it wasn’t so tragic.
How and why the courts could give more weight to the staff testimony but completely discount the overwhelmingly more compelling evidence before the eyes of the jury of the victim herself testifying that she had been assaulted is one of those instances that can only be sustained in a culture of devaluation. The court rulings in Connecticut follow a tradition of discounting those who are devalued in society—in this case women and more especially woman with disabilities.
There has been progress. The reaction from women’s groups and organizations working on behalf of sexual assault victims, the vast majority of them women, has been swift and substantial. Disability advocacy groups have also been swift and passionate in their condemnation of the law and its interpretation Connecticut courts.
A positive outcome from this debacle would be to see even stronger alliances formed between these groups. Sexual assault is still unacceptably high for all women. But that already unacceptable threshold is many, many times higher for women with disabilities. It’s past time we in the disability advocacy field put this issue front and center.