Saturday, March 27, 2010

For the Now-Twenty-Three-Year-Old Hero Who Survived the Assault of John Albert Gardner in 2000


I keep finding in the news, on blogs, and other places that people publish opinions (sometimes disguised as, or obscured with, facts) the message that you were “spared from having to testify at trial” and your attacker was released from prison after serving only five years, only to attack more young girls just like you. That message might mislead some to draw conclusions that would be wrong. And it breaks my heart to think that it might be hurting you.

I know that you weren’t spared at all.

I know that although you weren’t spared, you spoke up back then.

John Albert Gardner was not released too soon from prison to attack other girls because you didn’t testify at trial. He was put in prison because you did speak up, for yourself and for those other girls. He was released too soon because our laws do not adequately protect victims of sex crimes. He attacked those other girls because he is a monster.

The fact that he was still able to harm others is a failure of our society and our legal system. But you – at the tender young age of thirteen – did all that you could do to stop him, and you did stop him for as long was possible given our woefully inadequate legal system.

Our stories ought to dispel the notion that not testifying at trial is the problem. I can’t tell your story, but I want to try to shine a light on it by telling another from three perspectives, all mine. In particular, I want to pick apart the fallacy that you were spared. My purpose is to honor you, and other girls like you, who speak up. And, I’m not forgetting for a minute that there are many more girls of all ages and in a wide variety of circumstances unable to speak for themselves, so we have to speak up for them, too, whenever we are able.


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A Prosecutor’s Perspective

I lay claim to the prosecutor’s perspective because I worked in the office of the Los Angeles District Attorney as a certified law clerk during my last year of law school. I assisted the D.A. with hundreds of cases, including sex crimes, and prosecuted over sixty felony preliminary hearings on my own. I learned in law school, working as a Judicial Extern for a federal judge, and during my time in the D.A.’s office that most cases are resolved by a plea agreement. There are many reasons for plea bargains, including that the criminal justice system would collapse if every case went to trial.

One of the reasons often first pointed to in cases involving sex crimes, is that a plea agreement makes it easier for the victim. It doesn’t. It might spare the victim from telling the story in one courtroom setting. But it doesn’t spare him or her from telling the story. And, in some cases, the victim actually wants to tell the story at trial and doesn’t get the opportunity.

What is also overlooked is that a conviction in any case requires that a jury find that the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime charged was committed by the defendant. In cases involving sex crimes especially, guilty is a very difficult verdict to get. A plea bargain can ensure that the perpetrator will be sent to prison for some period of time rather than risk being set free entirely.

Even to get the case to the plea bargain stage, the victim must endure telling the story multiple times, e.g., to family members, police officers, social services, prosecutors, physicians, and mental-health professionals. I know that you had to endure that.


A Parent’s Perspective

I have three daughters, two of whom are now about your age. I also have a daughter who is now just a few years younger than you were when you were attacked. I can tell you that the strongest urge that I have in my life is to protect my children. If something happened to one of them, my first and foremost concern would be their overall health and safety. Sometimes our children’s interests and the interests of the community are one and the same. At particular points in time, though, it may seem that our children’s interests and the interests of the community conflict. If that were to happen with one of my children, I would put her interests first. If that is what your parents did for you when making decisions about you, their minor child at the time, then I believe that they did their best as parents.


A Survivor’s Perspective

When I was fourteen, I testified against my father in court for sexually abusing me throughout my childhood.

My father was in the courtroom, the right of the accused in our legal system. He stared hatefully at me while I sat on the witness stand and answered the prosecutor's questions. I had to describe in graphic detail what he did to me over a seven-year period, some of it violent. When it was over, it was decided, not in consultation with me, that he would plead guilty to whatever offense it was that they offered him.

Plea bargains are not always made to spare the victim from testifying. Plea agreements often take place following the testimony.

My father served time in prison, followed by time in a mental-health facility, and became a registered sex offender. At the time that my father was released, my mother took him back. I was 16 and still living at home. Back then registered sex offenders had to carry a card with them at all times identifying them as such. My father showed his card to me, and my mother asked me to look at it carefully and afterward reminded me of it regularly, as though it was a burden that I had caused him. I moved out when I was 17. At the time, operating in naiveté and denial, I believed that my father had molested only me, learned his lesson, and would never touch another child. I later found out that he molested other victims, and that he has since been in and out of prison for violent crimes. Although I have no contact with either of my parents, the last I heard, he is out again.

I recently filed a written report with law enforcement, and have had several conversations with a detective in the jurisdiction where my father resides, not for the purpose of further punishing my father (there is nothing that I need from him for me), but to warn other potential victims so he cannot hurt anyone else, and so that law enforcement could monitor whether his description matches any unsolved crimes. If he has re-offended, those victims can be helped and other potential victims beyond them protected. It seems to me that the most effective thing that I can do now concerning my father is to make sure I fully warn those charged with the duty to protect innocent people like us from dangerous people like him.


*********

I am NOT saying that testifying in court is useless. Speaking up is never useless – before court, in court, and after court. My father was put away and placed on sex offender registry, just like John Albert Gardner was put away and placed on that list. Even as inadequate as are our laws, and as painfully short as the enforcement system came to keeping those two monsters from hurting others, they were put away and marked to warn others because two little girls spoke up.

Telling the story is essential for our safety and our healing, and one of the most difficult things imaginable. We must work together so that the story in which any one of us might find ourselves does not become the subject of rank speculation and misguided opinion. Rather, we must ensure that every survivor is supported and uplifted by the community. Our laws must change so that when survivors speak up about violent sex crimes, the result is a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the perpetrator. Victims of violent sex crimes don’t get a second chance; neither should the perpetrators.

From time to time people will say that a particular case will inspire positive change in our laws or our community. And from time to time it will – and that is a very good thing. I want you to know that what you did inspired positive change too. When you spoke up back then, you got that ball rolling. You are a hero.

37 comments:

kcinnova said...

"The fact that he was still able to harm others is a failure of our society and our legal system."

Yes.

Beth said...

Bravo. So well written.
I applaud your wisdom, your courage and your heart.

Ginaagain said...

Thank you. I admire your wisdom and bravery so much.

Chris said...

What a post! One that should be read by everyone. You did a beautiful job of honoring the "now-twenty-three-year-old HERO". This came from a deep an honest place, Cheri. You've written with such intelligence, knowledge [personal knowledge and experiences that make me ache for you] and compassion. You're a hero too...

Dawn's Dad said...

After reading your post, I just feel drained. I cannot possibly offer anything of any substance other than a humble "Thank you" for what you have done in trying to keep these monsters at bay.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

On the one hand, you want to drive over somebody like this with a truck. On the other hand, a long stay in a small prison cell with a large roomie is probably what they get. The longer the better.
I don't want to say more, because this discussion makes a normal person ill.
And there on the left of your blog is this awesome drawing by Laura that makes you laugh 'Adam Lambark'. God.

just jamie said...

Your light guides the way for countless women.
Your voice lends words to those who can not speak it.
Your heart is a compass I will forever follow.

ILY. AAL.

Jen on the Edge said...

I can't even say anything, except to say that I am humbled by what you've shared with us.

And now I'm going to go hug my daughters.

Seraphine said...

i had to look up john albert gardner. at first, i didn't know who he was. it breaks my heart to read again about what had happened.

it breaks my heart to read about what happened to you. i admire you for speaking up. your courage and strength is inspiring.

the bible says to honor thy mother and thy father, but why isn't there a commandment to honor children?

bernthis said...

Wow! I had no idea Cheri. You are incredibly brave. I know a woman, I cannot say who, whose priest was arrested for molesting a child in the 70's. She actually turned to me and said, "He only did it that one time, why can't they leave him alone?" I nearly punched her. My now ex had to grab me and physically remove me from the room. They do it over and over. I have not had that experience, thank God, but it is one thing that cannot be cured, as it has been proven time and time again.

Jason, as himself said...

Oh, Cheri. I had no idea that you had been through such a horrendous ordeal. I admire you so much for your strength and conviction and intelligence and compassion.

Mostly I admire that you have somehow been able to put this away and make your life what it is today. I'm sure it was not without a struggle.

A side note about a potential pedophile I once knew. He had terrible demons that he couldn't make go away. From what he said, he never touched a child but always felt the urge to do so. He attempted suicide multiple times, until he finally succeeded, to keep himself from violating a child. There were other options of treatment, I suppose, but he didn't feel like fighting it any more.

What makes a sex offender a sex offender? What made your father do those horrible things to you? What made your mother defend him and make you feel guilty about it?

Rima said...

Thank you for writing this, Cheri. I was not aware of a lot of the information you passed on here, and it is good to know. The young woman you addressed is indeed a hero, as are all survivors.

dkuroiwa said...

oh cheri...you break my heart....i wish everyone could read this. everyone NEEDS to read this.
you are also a hero to share with us your story and your knowledge of the system and experience IN the system...i know it must have been hard to do, but, people need to know how it works so we can work to change the system.
you, my friend, are an angel.

Janet said...

I want to give you a big hug. I knew about your Dad, but not about your Mom. I'm so sorry.

Aunt Snow said...

Oh, Cheri.

What strength you have.

katydidnot said...

Positive change mostly only happens when people stir shit up. You stir the shit at the right time. In the right way. Bravely. Eloquently. Fiercely.

I love how brave and eloquent and fierce you are because it comes from love. Every. Single. Time.

I love being near your fierce love.

katydidnot said...

Someone said they want to give you a hug. I do too. But mostly? I just want to kick ass with you. Or stand next to you when you do it. Just in case you need my shoes to kick ass too. My shoes will be next to yours.

ILY. AAL.

Dawn in Austin said...

{{HUG}}
You are a strong woman. Thank you for sharing your story and for all you do to make our world a better place.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

I agree--a failure of our legal system indeed. And I'm so sorry to read of what you've had to endure. I do believe that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I firmly believe your life and your example support that belief. Go, girl.

San Diego Momma said...

The more you write, and speak, and share, the more I am honored to know you.

You are a hero to so many.

Miss M said...

Like so many others here, I am SO proud to know you! You are such an amazingly strong force that I am always blown away by.

ILY.

Mary said...

I love you too.

Professor J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor J said...

I was sexually abused by a neighbor when I was 8 through 11years old. And I never told. Anyone. Not until I was 29 and a counselor asked me how I lost my virginity.

Recently I was dating a woman who said to me, "Oh, so he was able to abuse other girls." After a couple of days of horror, guilt, and shame (that thought had actually never occured to me), I realized that I did what I had to in order to survive.

We all do what we have to in order to survive.

I love you, Cheri.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

Professor J:

Yes, we do what we have to do to survive, and we should never be second guessed by others.

I spoke up when I was 14, for various reasons, not the least of which was that I had disclosed what happened to someone outside of our family, and it could no longer be buried by my mother and father. I was told that I had to testify in court, and I did, probably mostly because I was one of those kids who tried my best to be a good girl.

Of course, in the years following, I tried to bury it all, emphasis on tried, so not much speaking up happened during those years.

Professor J, I have always thought of you as someone from whom power and light shines. Today is no different. You're a beacon.

I love you too.

phd in yogurtry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phd in yogurtry said...

"my mother took him back"


Of all that I read, I wonder if this was the deepest wound. I am so glad your self-preservation instinct has served you so well. And so sorry you had to endure so much loss and hurt in your young life. And just wow. What a testament to your strength and determination, to have gotten a law degree after all of that, even. Thank you for sharing your story and giving us a chance to understand.

I've worked with a lot of victims in these same circumstances. In fact I've been waiting to attend trial as witness on behalf of a family of victims. But the %$^#! legal system let the bastard out on bail even though his risk of fleeing was so obvious. Wait, not "the system" but a judge. A person. And now I'm certain he's out there accruing new victims.

And I thought, or maybe it's here in my state, that once the trial began, it's too late for a plea bargain. It just seems cruel to allow a victim to testify and then let the perp plea to a lesser. Did you feel that way? Or were you just glad it was all over? And he was back in two years? That's absurdly short. Was he mandated to treatment?

Trish said...

YOU are my hero. Thank you for posting such a thoughtful, careful, compassionate and incredibly courageous post! Thank you for speaking up for survivors.

ILY. AAL of course.

MJ said...

You had alluded to issues with your father; I hadn't been aware of the broader scenario. I cannot imagine living through the return and presence of your father in your home during adolescence and your mother's support of him. It is completely understandable why you have no contact with them. It was brave of you to post this publicly so that other victims can feel supported by your words.

Your post cannot help but cause me to reflect on my participation in the system as defence counsel in domestic & sexual assaults. They were the cases that brought me the most chagrin. My sympathies lay mostly with the complainant; my obligations to the accused. It is one of many reasons why I don't practice criminal law anymore.

Suburban Correspondent said...

I'm still trying to get my head around the fact that the court allowed him to return to live with you. Did they think you were safe?

And your mother - my goodness. She must have just viewed you as a troublemaker. Did she not believe what you told the court?

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Gary said...

Thank you Cheri. For speaking out again. For being eloquent. For being sensitive. For being honest. For being articulate. It can be a dark world and we need all the light we can get. Thanks for yours.

Anonymous said...

Cheri, you are an amazingly courageous woman. I second what Gary wrote above. To come out of that so healthy, so loving to your own daughters and husband, you are quite a hero. Sheryl

Fragrant Liar said...

Incredibly poignant and candid post that really gets you thinking about this issue on so many levels. I salute you and the survivor of your post for speaking out against your perpetrators, despite how difficult it must have been.

Stu said...

Thank you for speaking up, now and then.

-Stu

Michelle said...

Your post had me in tears :( I'm so sorry for what you went through in your past...I just can't imagine...and then the testifying as well. Thank you for sharing your story, I can't imagine it was easy to do, but maybe it will help someone else out there not feel so alone.

stephanie (bad mom) said...

You are phenomenal & extraordinary & beautiful. I was honored to meet you before; now I feel blessed beyond words.

And even more bummed that we aren't living closer to each other.

<3