Courtney Andrews was raped twice by her neighbor when she was 14, but didn’t tell anyone until it had happened yet again about four years later. “I was 18 when I told,” she said during an interview on Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry. “Actually, my best friend told for me, because I didn’t have the heart to tell my parents.”
Andrews, now 20, didn’t stop at a private revelation. She and her family sought to prosecute that neighbor, Austin Smith Clem. His September conviction on all three counts was followed two months later by a extraordinarily light sentence that has ignited widespread anger about how her case was handled.
In an explainer prior to the segment, host Melissa Harris-Perry began by saying that when she first read the headline in Mother Jones magazine about the case–“Alabama Man Won’t Serve Prison Time for Raping 14-Year-Old”–she found it literally unbelievable. That is because Clem, 25, was sentenced to:
- six years supervised probation
- two years in a community corrections program
- 40 years in a penitentiary, all suspended
- $2,381 in fines and restitution
That means that Clem will have to register as a sex offender, but will serve zero time in prison–and he will be able to live at home while in Limestone County’s community corrections program, one which is designed for non-violent offenders.
While prosecutors have filed to have Clem imprisoned and his sentence vacated, Andrews told Harris-Perry why she felt that she should go public. ”I just felt like if it happened with me, then it probably happens with other people,” she said. “If no one has really stood up and said anything about it, then maybe no one ever will if I don’t. So I felt like it would an injustice to other people if I didn’t…I knew I just had to do what I had to do.”
Andrews’ aunt, Melanie Johnson, said that the family was shocked and confused upon initially hearing the sentence in court earlier this month. “We were floored by it,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand it…how could it happen?”
msnbc national reporter Irin Carmon, also on the MHP panel, noted that Alabama’s sentencing guidelines allowed for Clem to be eligible for community corrections. Prior to airing the discussion, MHP reached out to Judge James Woodroof for an official explanation for the sentence, but never heard back.
“There are many injustices here,” said Carmon. “An enormous injustice is that these programs that are designated for non-violent offenders like drug offenders, who need healing and have not committed violence, that the implicit idea here, that rape is not a violent act–when it obviously is a very violent act that is masked by all of our society’s issues around the fact that it’s also an intimate act.”
Clem’s defense attorney, Dan Totten, had a childhood friendship with Judge Woodroof–but he told Mother Jones that Andrews having a “social relationship” with Austin Clem and his family was an indication that the acts did not occur as alleged in the charges of first- and second-degree rape.
In Sunday’s interview, Andrews responded to a question about her prior silence about the attacks being used against her.
“It’s just that people don’t understand the feelings that come along with it,” she said. “Being scared, the fact that I was young, I was a child…you know, you threaten to hurt my family, you threaten to hurt me, what was I supposed to do? And it’s just hard, because people aren’t going to understand that… I feel like there’s not a whole lot I can do to change their minds.”
Harris-Perry, herself a survivor of sexual assault, added that this particular story hit home in a personal way. ”We do conversations here about sexual assault, but none has ever hit closer to home for me, because my own story is so close to your story,” said the host. “Because I was the same age, because it was a neighbor, and although I finally told at about 20, I never went forward to the court system, for exactly this reason.”
As she awaits results of the sentence’s appeal, Andrews, now a college student in Mobile, is dealing with the knowledge that the man convicted of raping her three times will once again be living near her parents in Athens. When asked by Harris-Perry what it would take for her to feel safe, Andrews responded tearfully, “I need for him to be in prison. I’m not going to feel safe other than that.
“Every time I think about going home to see my parents, it’s going to be hard. Every time I think about my parents being home, you know… It just really bothers me, and scares me, because they’re there and I’m only 20, but I want to protect them.”
Watch the interview in full below.