Last month, I sat down with courageous survivor Courtney Andrews, who spoke out after a judge gave no prison time to Austin Clem, the man who was convicted of raping her three times when she was a teenager.
Now, I was hopeful when I heard an Alabama appeals court had ordered Judge James Woodroof to resentence Clem, after prosecutors argued that the lenient sentence actually violated state law. But on Monday, Judge Woodroof issued the new sentence.
And he added only two years to Clem’s probation, Reduced his original 40-year suspended sentence by five years to 35, and he decided–again–that Clem should spend no time in jail.
It was yet another slap in the face to Courtney, who said she was speechless and in tears when she learned about the sentence. And it was a setback for the prosecutor who had already worked so hard to appeal the original sentence and put Clem behind bars.
So I wanted to send that prosecutor some words of encouragement in my final letter of 2013.
Dear District Attorney Brian Jones:
It’s me. Melissa.
And when I heard the news on Monday, my first emotions of disappointment and disbelief were quickly replaced by something else.
Rage for Courtney Andrews, who shared her story, and should have gotten justice in return. Rage that Judge Woodroof confirmed the worst nightmares of survivors who don’t speak for fear that we’re not going to be heard. Rage that he could have used his power to protect the vulnerable, but he chose instead to allow a predator to go free.
Rage at the failure of a justice system that has allowed Austin Clem to be among the 97 out of every 100 rapists who never serve a single day in prison.
Now, I know you understand those daunting odds, because as a district attorney you are fighting against them every day. And it must feel sometimes like you are pushing a boulder uphill.
But I want to tell you–don’t stop.
Keep pushing. Because this case has already overcome so many of those odds.
54% of rapes are never even reported. But Courtney Andrews courageously defied that statistic when she told. Only 12 out of every 100 rapes lead to an arrest. But Austin Clem was arrested.
Just nine out of every 100 rapes ever get prosecuted. But thanks to you, this case was among that small number that went to trial.
Five out of every 100 rapes lead to a felony conviction. Clem was convicted of one count of rape in the first-degree. And two counts of second-degree rape.
After getting so close, I can only imagine how you must have felt after you fought the original sentence. And instead of the fair punishment that you sought, the new sentence is even worse.
But whatever those feelings might have been, you didn’t hesitate.
You challenged the judge’s second sentence right away. And I’m encouraged by your determination. Because there is no justice in a system that gives freedom and security to a rapist while his victim lives in fear and uncertainty. One of the best hopes for fixing what is broken about that system is people like you who will do what Justice Woodroof would not. Who will use their power to bend that proverbial moral arc just a little bit closer towards justice.
District Attorney Jones, I know this is just one case out of many for you. But for Courtney and other survivors of sexual assault, it means so much more. Because your push for a just sentence is sending the message that we who survive most need to hear:
“I believe you.”
“I will fight for you.”
“And it is safe for you to speak.”
“And you will get justice in exchange for your truth.”
That we need not be left with only our rage, and disappointment and fear. Because now, thanks to your efforts, there’s at least a little reason to hope. Keep pushing.