One of the hardest and lengthiest parts of the healing process has been coming to peace with the decision to accept the plea deal the defense lawyer and prosecutor agreed upon instead of taking the case to trial. Any time I think back to the year and a half or so working with the court system, the “what ifs” creep into my mind. In my head, and sometimes even in my dreams, different scenarios play out. What if we had gone to trial and the jury found my abuser guilty? What if we had gone to trial and the jury found my abuser not guilty? What would it have been like to face my abuser on the witness stand? Would my abuser have ever admitted his guilt? The questions can keep rolling. Thankfully, I am getting much better at preventing those thoughts from permeating my mind. I am able to rest assured that despite any decision I could have made that day in March 2006, I live for a God that is just and He loves me, His daughter.
So I must admit, this is probably the 10th time in a week that I have changed this portion of my blog. I have just continued to pray for the words I’m supposed to write to come to me. I refuse to post anything on my blog page until I have peace that it contains the words God has provided for me to share.
I am not sure how many people have witnessed a child sexual abuse case as it moves through the court system in its entirety. My goal with this post is to share what it was like for me as a 14-15 year old. Every single case will be different, but I believe there will be some similarities as well. My hope is that the conversation can continue in regards to how we can make the process of facing an abuser in court less painful for the child that has already suffered more than they ever should. I’m very thankful for the strides that have been made by many courts to adopt a trauma informed, victim centered approach.
In the weeks following my disclosure, I endured hours of interviews by state bureau investigators and forensic psychologists. They were great at their job, but there is just no way any person can make talking about your abuse experiences tolerable at this point in the journey. Eventually, my abuser was arrested and charged with three counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor; thus, the start of the court case.
Much of the time leading up to the actual day in court remains a blur. Between delays in the case, a change in Assistant District Attorney, and all of the stressors of moving and starting high school, I simply do not remember each meeting at the court house. However, in the midst of all that, the District Attorney’s office was working on my behalf to work out a plea deal with my abuser’s attorney.
When the court date arrived, I remember being overcome with fear. The only knowledge I had of what court was like came from watching Judge Judy and Judge Mathis. I truly had no idea what to expect. Before we entered the court room, the ADA called us to a room and explained that my abuser’s attorney had submitted a change to the terms of the plea agreement. At 15 years old, I had to choose between accepting the new terms, which reduced the jail time to 48 hours, or take the case to trial. If I said “deal,” it would all be over in less than an hour, they said. If I said “no deal,” the outcome of a trial was uncertain as the case was a “he said, she said.”
At this point in my journey, I had not regained my voice that was taken from me by my abuser. I had the opportunity to make a victim impact statement, but I declined; barely able to mutter the words I accepted the deal. I just wanted the nightmare to end. It did not take long for me to realize the court experience was just one chapter in the healing process that was closed. And truthfully, the chapter isn’t completely closed today. With the way the law is written, there is the possibility I could have to face my abuser in court once every single year for the rest of his life.
In North Carolina, many sex offenders are allowed to petition for removal from the sex offender registry after 10 years. If there petition is denied, one year from the denial, they are allowed to file a petition again- year after year after year. But that’s a side note and I can discuss the implications of that law in another post.
As I’ve taken a week to write this post, I’ve tried to explore what is the right decision to make? I don’t think there is a right decision. In some ways I have discovered that I am actually very lucky (weird to say in this context) to have had the chance to decide which route my case would take. Many never get the opportunity to have charges pressed against their abuser, due to statute of limitations or other reasons. Some have the opportunity to press charges, but when a plea deal is unsuccessful they are forced to withstand a trial, which is a trauma in itself. How can we make this process easier for individuals who have endured so much and are trying to continue on the healing process? In some ways, I guess I am beginning to learn that while we should aggressively pursue hefty penalties for committing crimes against children, I’m not sure there is any punishment a judicial system could hand down to an offender that will “feel enough” for the stolen innocence of a child.
God is just. That truth is enough.