In The Courts

Lawyers, Courts Go Easy on Gender-Based Crimes

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The recent murder of Amy Lord in Massachusetts and Ariel Castro's sexual enslavement of three young women in Ohio expose serious lapses in the way crimes targeting women are handled.




 

Scales of justice.

 

Credit: Michael Coghlan/mikecogh on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- A lot can be said about the recent murder of Amy Lord, who was beaten and forced to withdraw money from several ATM machines, before being fatally stabbed in a Boston neighborhood on July 23.

Much can also be said about the 10 years of sexual enslavement suffered by three young women at the hands of Ariel Castro in Ohio. Officials in Ohio said the victims were targeted based on their gender, and there's no dispute that the crimes against them were highly gendered. From rapes and beatings, to pregnancies and forced miscarriages, nothing about the crimes wasn't driven by gender animus.

Among other things, all these victims were targeted for violence because they were female.

Police deserve some of the blame, especially the detective who had plenty of evidence but failed to arrest Edwin Alemany, the Massachusetts man charged in Lord's killing, for a sexual assault he committed in 2012; before he had a chance to attack women again and again.

And though the FBI talked to Castro after one of his victims disappeared, they didn't bother to check his house even though the windows were covered in trash bags and the place looked like a run-down prison. The cops didn't even become suspicious when neighbors called to report seeing women walking around in Castro's backyard, naked and chained.

If neighbors reported seeing a bunch of men naked and in chains, the law enforcement response would have been swift and serious, as well it should have been.

Why the shrug from cops when victims are female?

Perpetrators Get Wrist Slap

Judges and prosecutors bear a lot of the blame because when perpetrators of violence against women are arrested, they get a slap on the hand. Prosecutors and judges, more so than cops, determine whether a dangerous criminal is allowed back on the street.

Irrespective of where the most blame lies, when violence against women is met with a revolving door at the courthouse, the message goes out that women's lives have little value in the criminal justice system, and in society.

The problem is made worse by lawmakers' persistent refusal in some states, including Massachusetts, to include "gender" in the list of social classes covered by civil rights/hate crimes law.

Other categories such as ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation are routinely covered, but gender is often intentionally excluded. This means that if Lord had been killed because she was gay or Muslim, it would have been a civil rights or hate crime. But since she was targeted based on gender, that's legally irrelevant, as is the fact that women are now, according to cops, disproportionately at risk of being attacked in South Boston, where Lord lived.

In Ohio, gender is included in the list of civil rights or hate crimes. So we can't blame lawmakers there.

But the prosecutor is another story. He refused to file civil rights or hate crimes charges among the 977 counts ranging from kidnapping, murder (of unborn fetuses) and rape, to some silly charge related to the use of criminal tools. The prosecutor certainly knew that he had the option of naming and framing the violence for what it was: A profound violation of humanity, exacted against three young women because they were female. He refused.

He might try to argue that the civil rights/hate crimes law in Ohio is only a sentencing enhancement and that it would have added no weight to the 1,000 years the guy was already facing.

When Gender Incites Crime

But if efficiency were the only goal, the prosecutor could have filed 10 charges of kidnapping and rape, only, and kept the guy behind bars for 10 lives. The very fact that a crime is labeled a civil rights/hate crime matters because it reflects the idea that society as a whole suffers--women as a class disproportionately--when gender animus is the basis for criminal activity.

The Ohio prosecutor didn't even see fit to charge Castro with human trafficking even though Ohio enacted a human trafficking law in 2010.

Nearly a thousand criminal charges were filed against Castro, but the case still seemed underdone somehow. It's a shame that the prosecutor did not honor his obligation to the public good by framing the crime not in terms of big numbers ("we threw the book at him"), but in words that conveyed the meaning of a crime as akin to modern-day slavery ("we threw the Constitution at him").

Switching back to the Bay State, where, unlike Ohio, gender animus cannot be considered when prosecutors consider hate or civil rights crimes charges.

The most embarrassing example of Massachusetts' blatant subjugation of women was on display in 2010 when high school student Phoebe Prince took her life after relentless bullying. Her tormenters faced civil rights/hate crimes charges because they called her an Irish slut. Had they called her just a plain old slut, civil rights/hate crimes charges would have been impossible.

More than half the states include gender in the list of protected class categories, which makes the fact that Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, is so out of touch on something as basic as women's equal protection of the law seem especially odd.

Perplexing Activist Silence

Similarly perplexing is the silence of groups that should be making noise about Massachusetts and Ohio.

Where is the National Organization for Women or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center? RAINN? What about state-based anti-violence groups such as Jane Doe in Massachusetts? Isn't it their job to speak out when government officials devalue women's lives by refusing to redress gender-based violence fairly?

The murder of Lord isn't a wake-up call so much as an embarrassing example of failed leadership. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick hasn't responded to Lord's murder by calling for a tougher law enforcement response to crimes against women, nor has he complained about the absence of gender as a class in that state's civil rights/hate crimes law. Even Attorney General Martha Coakely, a woman who professes a special concern for gender-based violence, has stayed silent.

In Ohio, not a single government official or advocacy group has criticized the failure of the prosecution to file civil rights/hate crimes charges.

It's time for President Barack Obama to call on all governors, district attorneys and police chiefs to come together and demand that all states add gender to their civil rights/hate crimes statutes. With gender as a category, the public will better understand the human rights nature of rape and domestic abuse, and the protection of women's lives will be elevated as a law enforcement priority. In addition, cops and prosecutors will have access to more civil rights/hate crimes prevention funding, which means their efforts will be more effective.

That women have waited so long for their rightful seat at the civil rights table of justice, especially in a place like Massachusetts, is not only embarrassing, it's deadly dangerous.

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