If anyone still wonders why women are reluctant to report rape cases, the Pennsylvania attorney general's office has the answer for you. Pennsylvania's state attorneys blamed a rape victim who was assaulted by an inmate and known rape convict, citing "contributory negligence." In other words, it was the victim's fault, too. It's a case of blatant victim-shaming, and an alarming indication of how flawed our legal system still is when it comes to dealing with rape.
Last July, a 24-year-old typist working at the Rockview state prison near Bellefonte was rendered unconscious and raped by an inmate of the prison, Omar Best. Before the attack, the victim had raised her concerns to her superiors, saying she felt uncomfortable with the inmates' unsupervised access to the hallway that led to her office. She was particularly fearful of Best — fears that were clearly valid — but the inmates continued to have access to her floor.
Although Best was convicted on several counts in a clear-cut trial, the victim has raised a very necessary argument: This shouldn't have happened in the first place. In April, she filed a federal lawsuit against the prison, her immediate supervisor, a guard to whom she had raised concerns about Best, and Marirosa Lamas, the prison superintendent at the time of the attack.
However, the state's attorneys fought back with a defense that feels like grasping for straws. They cited "contributory negligence," a legal term for assigning blame to both the plaintiff and the defendant in the incident. According to the state's attorney's response, obtained by the Associated Press, the defense may try to argue that the "Plaintiff acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed to the events which led to the damages Plaintiff has alleged in her complaint." And the reason? The victim hadn't locked her office door.
Wow. So that's why the rape happened? Totally makes sense. And that's not nearly the only frustrating aspect of this case. Here's the baffling breakdown. (Prepare to be furious.)
The Nightmarish Incident
Let's start with the incident itself, the details of which are horrifying. According to prosecutors, the assailant strangled the victim unconscious and raped her for 27 minutes. During the trial, a nurse who testified said that it was the worst case of employee assault she had ever seen during her time at the prison.
The Assailant's History
Best had been transferred to Rockview after assaulting another female employee at a different prison. In fact, he has quite the history of assaulting women. Best was also convicted of rape in 2011 and charged with attempted rape in 1996.
At the trial for the Rockview incident, the jury found Best guilty on all counts — rape by forcible compulsion, rape of an unconscious victim, sexual assault, and two counts of aggravated assault — after less than two hours in court. He is now serving life in prison.
A Flawed Legal System
But perhaps the most frustrating — and downright disturbing — element of the incident is our criminal justice system that refuses to take many sexual assault cases seriously. According to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, contributory negligence arguments are common, and the state's attorneys have to explore all possible defenses as representatives of the prison.
However, it's exactly this kind of victim shaming that perpetuates a society where 60 percent of rape cases are not reported and 97 percent of rapists will never even go to jail. And even if the victim does report her case, instead of protecting her, the legal system may very well say, "This is your fault," as seen in the Rockview case. So not only does the victim get zero protection, she's actually forced to relive the nightmare all over again. What kind of system is that?Images: Think Progress/Twitter, Getty Images (3)