The System Worked One Man Malfunctioned

TIM BAKER

May 03, 1993|By TIM BAKER

If you're a woman, I know how you probably reacted to the Baltimore County rape case which hit the papers last week. But if you're a man, ask yourself this question -- honestly now, what would you have done if you had been the judge?

Here's the evidence. Larry Gillette is 44 years old. Some teen-age girls worked for him. One night last August, he served them vodka at his apartment and then bought them drinks at a Towson bar. One of the girls got drunk -- so drunk that they had to take her back to his apartment. She threw up and passed out in his bathroom. They carried her into his bedroom and left her fully clothed and unconscious on his bed.

After the other girls left, Gillette climbed into bed with the girl and took off her clothes. She briefly woke up to find him on top of her. Then she passed out again. In the morning, she went to a nearby hospital. Medical tests confirmed that he'd had sexual intercourse with her.

Gillette was charged with second-degree rape. It's a felony. Maryland law defines the offense as committing intercourse on a woman who is ''mentally incapacitated or physically helpless.'' The statute includes in capacitation which results from excessive drinking.

The victim and the other girls testified against Gillette at the trial. He took the stand in his own defense and said the girl had only had an upset stomach. He claimed she had been awake, aware and willing. The jury didn't believe him. He was convicted.

Now, gentlemen, if you'd been the judge, what kind of a sentence would you have imposed?

Slam him!

Every man I know would clobber this guy. We have daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, friends. We don't want some degenerate like Gillette prowling our neighborhoods, preying on women, especially on young and immature girls. We'd make sure he spent a long long time in prison.

Most men feel that way. But this case has become notorious because one man didn't. The Honorable Thomas J. Bollinger let Gillette go.

Judge Bollinger gave him what's called ''probation before verdict.'' Gillette's criminal conviction will be expunged in one year if he complies with a few simple terms of probation. In the meantime, he won't go to prison. A year from now, he won't even have a criminal record.

Judge Bollinger explained himself this way. The second-degree rape statute ''attempts to change social attitudes.'' But he felt a felony sentence would be unfairly harsh on Gillette. He didn't think the man would have been convicted of anything if the victim had been a 35-year-old woman instead of a girl. But despite the victim's young age, Judge Bollinger said she had ''facilitated'' her own downfall.

All Gillette had done was take advantage of a girl who had been drinking. The judge called it ''the dream of a lot of males.''

I can't speak for Judge Bollinger's fantasy life, but I've been a teen-age boy, a young man and a middle-aged one. I've hung around with guys who talked about women and sex. No male I've ever met ''dreams'' of having intercourse with an unconscious ,, woman. The guys I've known, even back in the dark ages of the Fifties, would not have needed to change their ''social attitudes'' to abhor conduct like this, regardless of whether the victim was an 18-year-old girl or a 35-year-old woman.

The damage caused by this one judge goes far beyond the unscrupulous and now unpunished violation of a young girl. It goes beyond having a man like Gillette freely walking our streets. With one swipe, Judge Bollinger has reawakened women's fears that the legal system is actively hostile to them in rape cases.

In fact, however, the ''system'' worked. The Maryland rape statute clearly prohibits this conduct. The police promptly arrested Gillette. The state's attorney presented the charges to the grand jury. It handed down an indictment. An experienced prosecutor vigorously tried the case. There were no scurrilous attacks on the victim's character. The jury convicted. The law authorized a severe punishment -- up to 20 years. The prosecutor asked for a prison sentence. The court's own pretrial-services department recommended five to ten years.

What went wrong here was a one-man malfunction. One judge's perverted perspective and distorted values derailed a perfectly good process and permitted a dangerous criminal to escape.

In the last week, however, our community has created something worthwhile out of this seeming abomination. A firestorm of criticism has hit Judge Bollinger. The cries of outrage have come from men as well as women. The public repudiation has shattered his reputation beyond repair.

There are now serious calls for his impeachment. Other judges have seen what's happened. They can imagine the hell they'd go through if they had to defend a similar mistake in a re-election campaign. Unfortunately, Judge Bollinger's term will last 12 more years. But women's groups and the press won't forget him.

In the meantime, we've all witnessed a vivid morality play. Judge Bollinger and Larry Gillette will go down in history together as living examples of an old adage: No one is entirely worthless -- you can always serve as a horrible example.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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