A rape trial's familiar script

Dianne Klein

February 14, 1992|By Dianne Klein

THE PAID defenders of Mike Tyson had argued from the start that their client was not a very nice man. They said he was lewd, uncouth and untamed. He had a reputation with women, which was well-known.

So the young woman who was accusing this man of raping her, if indeed she was as smart as she claimed, should have known better, the defenders said. She should not have agreed to a "date." Unless, of course, she had a reputation herself. Insert here a knowing wink.

The ploy, among the most successful in the court of law and the court of everyday assumptions and smears, did not work this time.

Michael Gerard Tyson, the boxer and superstar, was convicted of rape. The defenders lost on all three felony counts. Their client faces sentencing next month.

Chief prosecutor J. Gregory Garrison, moments after the verdict was delivered by an Indianapolis court, was happy about the outcome, although he wasn't quite as ebullient as the Marion County Prosecutor, Jeffrey Modisett.

Seconds earlier, in a gushing round of thanks for the county legal team that was broadcast on live TV, Mr. Modisett compared the moment to winning an Academy Award.

Garrison seemed to wince a little at that, making sure to add that, really, there would be no champagne pops, because after all, a young man would likely be going to jail.

Then he said the prosecution won because of the victim herself, an 18-year-old college freshman who was representing Rhode Island in the Miss Black America pageant.

"She stuck to her beliefs throughout a very tough trial, never lost faith, and her courage is a great victory, a great example for rape victims across America," Mr. Garrison said. "We showed the system works. But I would have said that if we'd lost too."

Clarification: Yes, you heard that right. "I would have said that if we'd lost too," the prosecutor said. Even though a young woman was raped.

"We showed the system works," the prosecutor said.

So maybe Mr. Garrison's boss was on to something after all, even if his remark about winning an Academy Award was not in the best of taste.

The legal system, especially when dealing with cases of sexual assault, provides the stage. Ignore for a moment the matter of whether a crime actually occurred. This might well be immaterial. What counts is the show.

Your victim: How will she hold up? What does she look like? Does she go to church? Has she ever even remotely suggested that she might enjoy sex? Child-like is good. A virgin, needless to say, is way off the scale.

A key piece of evidence in the Tyson trial was the victim's underwear. It was pink polka dots, little girlish, like something a mother might buy for her pre-teen.

Mr. Garrison made a sarcastic remark to the jury about this wild, sexual woman going to meet Tyson wearing her "pajama panties." Like something straight out of Frederick's of Hollywood, the prosecutor said. Insert here another knowing wink.

Now take your defendant: How important is he? How much money in the bank? Do women like him? That is, how many have been known to actually turn down this guy for a "date?"

And what about the color of his skin? Does that matter? Depending on where your show is staged, many think that it just might. You know how audiences excuse me, juries -- can get.

Finally, it is the legal talent that completes the cast. They direct the show, control the angles, mindful of the overall effect.

William Kennedy Smith, for one, knows this well. He was cast in a very similar defendant's role. He called it a date, she called it rape. The jury in Palm Beach believed him.

Roy Black, Smith's attorney, said that he would have liked to represent Mike Tyson too. He had predicted that the ex-champ would get off. Alas.

But as it was, Tyson's lead attorney, Vincent Fuller, made at least a few faux paus. There was no show of even liking his client.

Mr. Garrison and county prosecutor Barbara Traten, however, were folksy, warm and of course, sarcastic to good effect. Does this look like a woman who was asking for it? Naturally, we all know how "that kind of woman" appears. Again, the wink.

So, in the case of the People vs. Michael G. Tyson, the script was a knockout. After a crime, justice prevailed. That is, the victim was "lucky." She was believed. Her purity, her naivete, stood up on the stand. She had a sweet voice.

But what of all those other victims, the ones who might have a few blemishes in their past? What if they have a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog in their mail?

Rape is one of the most under-reported of all major crimes. The National Victim Center in Washington says that only one in 10 victims of sexual assault ever goes as far as reporting it to police. And of some 100,000 such complaints filed last year, only a fraction went to trial.

Even Hollywood has a better production record than that.

It is time to rework all these tired scripts being played out on the legal stage. That way maybe winning a rape trial won't be so rare. It should never occur to anybody to compare a rape conviction to winning an Academy award.

Yet I understand exactly why it does.

Dianne Klein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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