“IT STARTS WITH BELIEVING,” blares a poster advertising the services of a Sex-Assault Nurse Examiner. My colleague and I snort. Technically, SANE’s are supposed to be evidence-collectors, and nothing more. They aren’t supposed to take sides in whether or not a sex assault took place, they’re just supposed to gather and preserve evidence when someone reports an assault. But of course, many SANE’s consider themselves part of the law enforcement team and do whatever they can to ensure a conviction, and this poster just bolsters what we already know.
I’m talking to a prosecutor about a domestic assault case, and I mention that it’s not “very” serious, that there were no injuries that required medical treatment, the complainant is not interested in prosecuting it, and it appears that the defendant has only one prior similar offense. My efforts at mitigation are overheard by the prosecutor’s paralegal, who audibly huffs. “Just funny,” she says, “to listen to people who are desensitized to it talk about these things.”
I identify strongly and stridently as a feminist and have since I was old enough to understand what the word meant, and even now, as the word and I have both evolved. I waited tables in late-night diners where harassment was part of the job description. I started practicing law in the actual buckle of the Bible Belt, in the seat of Good Ol’ Boy Country, and I’ve gritted my teeth as I smiled back at the men who said these things to me. When I laughed at it because I thought I had to. And so many more things have happened. And I don’t have to prove to anyone that I know what it is or what it feels like to hate it, to rail against it, to acknowledge that this world has been so unfair for so long, and that sex and power are totally and inextricably entwined in our society.
But I find myself wondering if there is a place for me in the #metoo movement. I have dedicated my career and, really, my life to demanding more and better evidence- to telling prosecutors that they don’t have enough, telling juries that the conclusions drawn by the State are not reasonable, that the Complainant isn’t credible, that the story doesn’t add up, that the Defendant doesn’t deserve the punishment being handed down.
I struggle to separate my personal and professional lives, and I think a lot of us do because we love and believe in this work so much, and because the reason we do this work is because of who we are as people. I’m not sure, sometimes, if there is a difference or if I really want there to be one.
What if I believe Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford because of how it feels, based on her testimony, on her word? Or if I think that Bill Cosby’s sentence was pretty light? And, in this same mind, what if I don’t think that all sexual assaults are equally horrible, or if I disbelieve an acquaintance’s personal story of assault? Does that make me a bad feminist, a bad defense attorney, or both?
I feel the tension between these two parts of myself and I don’t think it can be reconciled.
For a long time I have known that my personal belief in my client’s innocence is irrelevant to my representation, and I remind myself that the rules of evidence do not apply in the life we live outside of court, but I struggle because I know why those rules of evidence are there- to ensure credibility of evidence, that the fact-finder will only consider reliable things in making a decision.
Of course I’ve represented people who were guilty of doing terrible things to other people. A disproportionate number of my clients’ victims have been women- voiceless women, impoverished women, women of color and women who have been trafficked and traded like chattel. Of course I’ve believed the victim before and still represented my client zealously. I have to. I want to.
Don’t you understand? This is the way things have to be for me. I have to hold these two things separately, much like my job itself: I am paid by the system to fight the system I am integral to. How do I feel about #metoo if it leads to more wrongful convictions? How do I feel about this constant need to fight for the underdog if the underdog is not the Defendant?
I can’t help but feel excluded and peculiar. I know that so many of my fellow defense lawyers feel the same way. But I’m not ready to reduce this to a hashtag, to identify completely with this victim-centric movement because I guess the point of it all, the thing that is not in tension within me, is the fact that my heart is with the beleaguered of this world, and that as a good lawyer, things are always so much more complicated than they seem from what ends up being portrayed.
Walt Whitman penned, “I contain multitudes.” Later, Salman Rushdie elaborated, “To understand me, you must swallow the world.” I think we all know those things are true. Everything before and after and during us makes this one bright spot of “present.” Inside of me swirls two different women, and their wrestling with each other make both of them stronger. At least I hope so.