Rape Victim Professor Accused of Killing Rapist in 1995 Put Behind Bars

Rape culture, as is evidenced again and again, is very much alive — and it often sneaks its way into the legal system. Only two days ago, a lawyer in New Zealand literally blamed the victim in a rape case for not "closing her legs." Now, a rape victim has been put behind bars for allegedly being part of the group of people — including her violent ex-boyfriend — who killed her rapist over twenty years ago.

Last week, 39-year-old Norma Patricia Esparza was charged with setting in motion the kidnapping and murder of her rapist Gonzalo Ramirez — who was hacked to death with a meat cleaver back in 1995 — by pointing him out to her boyfriend. Although the case had been considered cold, Orange County reopened it in 2010, after new DNA evidence was discovered. It was only last year that police arrested Esparza — who is a professor of psychology and counselling at Webster University in Geneva — when she arrived in Boston for an academic conference, and just last week that she was taken into custody in California and subsequently charged with a count of special circumstances murder.

On Thursday, Esparza rejected a plea deal to reduce the charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter, and had her bail revoked immediately after.  “I collaborated with them this entire year and they’re still pressing charges, knowing very well that I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Esparza said. “Whatever the charges are that they’re asking me to plead guilty for, it’s essentially something that I cannot accept because it would essentially be a lie…. Now that they have all the information to move with their case and build their case, now they’ve decided to put pressure and ask me to accept a guilty plea.”

The case has drawn the attention of social media and sexual assault groups, who believe that Esparza is being unfairly targeted. "This is a tragic situation," said the co-founder of End Rape on Campus. "Dr Esparza has been failed by every institution in her life. The fact the DA is terrorising a victim in this case is unconscionable. They're sending a chilling message to rape survivors."

"It is hard to see how the continued criminal prosecution against Dr. Norma Patricia Esparza serves the interest of justice," reads a petition at Change.org, which calls on the D.A. to drop the charges against Esparza. "We cannot understand how she can be seen as a threat to society given that she has had no previous accusations or convictions throughout her life. In continuing to pursue her you are sending a troubling message to other rape victims who already have a sense that they will not receive justice within the legal system." The petition has already gathered 3,000 signatures.

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According to Esparza, she met the then 24-year-old Ramirez at a nightclub in March of 1995, while she was still a student at Pomona college. She was raped by him in her dorm room the next morning, and immediately sought the morning after pill but didn't notify the police. She told Caroline Heldman:

"I remember the nurse’s reaction like it was yesterday. She gave me the morning-after pill to ensure that I did not get pregnant and she walked away. It sent a strong signal of shame. If only that college nurse would have helped me that day, the horrible series of events that took place would have been prevented. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to their students, especially when they are most vulnerable."

A few weeks after the alleged rape, Esparza, after much urging from her enraged then-boyfriend, Gianni Anthony Van, finally identified Ramirez at a bar. Van and three friends, Shannon Gries, Kody Tran and Diane Tran, then reportedly left Esparza behind to follow the accused rapist, after which they kidnapped him, beat him, hacked at him with a meat cleaver and then finally tied him to the ceiling of a transmission shop owned by Tran.

According to Esparza, who saw Ramirez' body before they dumped it by the side of a road in Santa Ana:

"I retreated downstairs to a corner and stayed quiet. I was trapped. I was out-numbered by four older and bigger people. I was four feet 9 inches, 98 pounds, and I was miles away from my home late at night in a non-residential area. I had no car and didn’t even know how to drive. I feared for my life and felt that the only thing I could do was to submit. All I knew is that these people were dangerous, and I needed to stay quiet ... While [Van] and [Gries] took my rapist away, the other man, Kody Tran, explicitly threatened me and added he would also hurt my mother if I said anything about what I had witnessed. “This was done for you. You better not turn against us, or we will get you,” he said. I believed him too. He had shown me what they were capable of doing."

Although authorities had repeatedly assured Esparza that they “were not interested” in her and that she “was not a target” — and it was thanks to Esparza's testimony that authorities were able to charge Van, Gries, and Diane Tran with the murder — they refuse to treat her case differently, and have even questioned the veracity of her rape accusation. 

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"Her two options are to change her plea [to guilty] and proceed that way or go to a jury trial," said Orange County District Attorney's spokeswoman Farrah Emami. "She has not pleaded guilty, so it's important she be treated the same as any other defendant."

According to estimates from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, in spite of a miniscule rate of false rape accusation — only  2 to 8 percent — assault victims are often met with skepticism  because they don't react in the way rape victims are “supposed” to. Horrifically, only about 18 per cent of rape cases involving adult women actually end with a prosecution.

If convicted, Esparza faces life in prison without parole.

Image via Associated Press


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