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A letter to a Texas judge who judged a sexual assault survivor

Host Melissa Harris-Perry sends an open letter to a Texas judge who recused herself from a rape case after making insensitive remarks about the survivor.

Dear Judge Jeanine Howard

May 10, 201404:09
Sir Young, 20, is led into court before a hearing in Dallas Thursday, May 8, 2014.

The judge gave 20-year-old Sir Young five years of deferred probation for the crime, which occurred in 2011. She took the extra step of freeing him from the usual probationary conditions typically given to sex offenders--which have since been reinstated by the judge who replaced her. And unbelievably, she also ordered him to perform community service at a center where people in crisis seek support after they've been sexually assaulted.

All because, as the judge said, the young woman "wasn't the victim she claimed to be," and the young man who raped her was "not your typical sex offender." The judge, a Democrat running unopposed for a third term in November, is Judge Jeanine Howard--and my letter this week is to her.

Dear Judge Howard,

It's me, Melissa.

Now, you offered this in the explanation you gave for your decision, that:

"My job is not to make people happy. My job is to follow the Constitution and do the right thing. I will always do the right thing."

Yes, Judge Howard, you may know your job. But you have some deeply problematic notions about what constitutes the "right thing" when it comes to sexual assault.

First of all, there is nothing right about the suggestion that Sir Young wasn't a typical sex offender. Nothing. Not his multiple college scholarships, nor his acquaintance with his victim exempts him from the one action he has admitted to sharing in common with so-called "typical" offenders: namely, sex with a person who cannot, or will not, consent.

But more importantly, you justified your decision based on the fact that the young woman had previously wanted to spend time with Sir Young, that she'd agreed to have sex with him on another occasion, and because her medical records indicated she'd previously had sexual encounters with other partners, one of which may have resulted in a pregnancy.

What, exactly, does any of that have to do with the moment in 2011 when both the girl and Young agree that she repeatedly told him "stop" and "no" before and during the assault? Let me help you with the answer: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Because all you really needed to know about whether the then-14-year old was (as you said) "the victim she claimed to be" was that in the moment of her assault, she was a girl who did not give her consent. But since you felt it appropriate to send her rapist to a rape crisis center as part of his probation--a decision you called "spur of the moment."

I have to wonder about your concern for consent when it comes to survivors of sexual assault, because you certainly did not consider whether those who go to these centers seeking a safe space consented to sharing that space with a convicted rapist. Perhaps you felt that working at the center may have taught this young man to have remorse for his actions. But Judge Howard, in trying to help him to learn something, you have also completely overlooked the lesson your decision is teaching survivors of sexual assault.

Because after your judgment, the takeaway from the young woman who survived the assault was this:

"Everything I went through was for nothing... It would have been better for me not to say anything."

Judge Howard, you have confirmed the very deepest fears of all of us who are survivors of rape. That if we speak up, if we summon the courage to name our attackers, if we seek justice for the violation of our bodies, that we will instead be met with skepticism and shame.

And so in the future, when you are weighing whether you are doing the right thing by a perpetrator of rape, I hope you will find a place on the scales of justice for all of those who continue to survive it in silence.