Lessons from a Sex-Crimes Prosecutor — by Heide Herrmann

My friend, Heide Herrmann, is a sex-crimes prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (the same job I held before becoming an author).  She has handled some of the office’s most high-profile sex-crime cases, but is known for bringing incredible diligence, compassion, and good judgement to every case that crosses her desk. Heide is leaving the USAO to work for DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch.  Her recent Facebook post about the lessons she learned from the job really resonated with me.  In a few lines, she captured a lot of what the job is about.  Her post is reprinted below. Good luck with the new job, Heide, and thanks for making the city a better place: one day  and one person, at a time. — Allison

As I embark upon my last week as an Assistant United States Attorney, below is a list, in no particular order, of a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the last six years or so. Some more trite than others.

1.  You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

2.  Everything about being a prosecutor is scary as hell. And it’s how I now know how brave I am capable of being.

3.  When a person tells you that you can’t possibly understand how she feels, she’s right. But you should still try.

4.  I can’t fix all of the problems for all of the people I meet. But every day, there is at least one thing I can do to make one person’s life a little easier, safer or better.

5.  No means no. Unconscious means no. So drunk that she can’t walk or talk means no. If that seems obvious to you, good. Teach it to your sons anyway, because apparently it’s not obvious to everyone.

6.  If a car runs you down in the middle of a crosswalk, it’s the driver’s fault, not yours. But you still look both ways before crossing. Young women — please think about how much you drink, and whether you’ll still be safe if you have another, and another, and another. If a man assaults you it’s his fault, not yours, but I’d rather you never find yourself in that situation.

7.  Hug your children. Tell them how important they are. Talk to them, listen to them, love them, protect and appreciate them. If you already do that, good. Do it more. You’d be surprised how many children have no one who gives them the most basic care and kindness. I don’t want to tell you more, because then it’ll hurt you, the way it hurts me.

8.  There is no group of people more concerned about doing justice, protecting the vulnerable, and maintaining the highest level of ethical and professional standards than the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. I will always be proud to have practiced alongside these heroic prosecutors, and to have served the citizens of the District of Columbia.

SVU’s Season 15 Finale: “Spring Awakening”

Congratulations, SVU! Not only was the show renewed for a sixteenth season, it delivered one of its best episodes for this season’s finale. “Spring Awakening” showed some admirably authentic police details while provoking the full spectrum of emotions. Earlier this week, showrunner Warren Leight tweeted out a picture of Kleenex, warning fans to prepare. He was right.

Recap:

Nick is hauled to jail for beating up Simon, the child-torture fetishist who was acquitted last episode. Fueled by its recent Twitter #fiasco, NYPD charges Nick with a felony, and he’s locked up on $500,000 bail. Munch returns to bail Nick out and give a fatherly pep talk. Amanda, who often shows serious disregard for the law she’s sworn to upheld, saves her lover by threatening Simon’s wife. If Simon doesn’t drop the charges, Amanda snarls, she’ll make sure he goes to jail forever. Oh, also, Simon is online offering to let men rape his wife if they email him kiddie-torture-porn pictures. Simon promptly says he threw the first punch, and the charges against Nick are dropped.

Let’s hope Nick signs up for some anger management classes, Amanda signs up for some ethics training, and Simon falls down an elevator shaft.

Meanwhile, a German tourist hires a prostitute named Ellie to visit his hotel room, but is instead robbed, beaten and raped by her pimp, Tino. Murphy poses as an Irish tourist looking for love, and nabs the duo. But then the German goes to a lineup and identifies the wrong guy as the pimp. Tino is set free, and Ellie won’t testify against him. “He’s my gangster, my daddy,” she hisses through heroin-brown teeth. Even the prospect of going through drug withdrawal in jail isn’t enough to make her turn on her pimp.

That is, until DNA results show that Ellie is the mother of baby Noah, whom Olivia rescued from child pornographers a few episodes ago. Olivia has been following Noah’s path through the foster care system – and slowly falling in love with him – but now must use him as a tool to flip Ellie. When Ellie is reunited with her baby, who she thought was dead, she vows to get clean and testify against Tino, who sold the baby to the pornographers. [Read more…]

SVU Episode #15-23: Thought Criminal

“Do you want to live in a world where you can be put in prison for what’s in your head?” That’s what the outraged defense attorney asked our ADA in tonight’s episode, and it’s the real-life question raised by the horrifying “Cannibal Cop” case. As technology is increasingly used to explore our most secret desires, it’s an issue that will be debated and litigated for years to come.

Recap:

A photographer named Simon, who specializes in photos of children, secretly fantasizes about torturing and killing little boys. He discusses this extensively in Internet chat rooms, which eventually leads to police attention. Murphy and Amanda go to his showroom for an undercover chat, with Murphy posing as a rich guy who wants to participate in Simon’s activities. After they ditch Amanda, the men discuss kidnaping a boy to torture and kill. Ice-T plays a guy willing to do the kidnapping for a price. Simon is all in, and shows Murphy and Ice the soundproof torture chamber he’s built – across the street from a school – complete with restraints, butchers knives, rotating saws, operating tables, and industrial grade drains and sinks.

[Read more…]

SVU Episode #15-22: “Reasonable Doubts”

In this powerful episode, SVU captured in one hour much of the pain, controversy, and ambiguity of the decades-long Woody Allen / Dylan Farrow child-sex abuse case. The show explored how hard these cases are to prosecute, and how the effects of abuse linger forever in a child’s life.

Verdict: A

Recap:

A director named Frank leaves his middle-aged actress wife, Katherine, and takes up with her barely-legal sister, Rose. In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, Frank and Katherine’s little girl, Chelsea, tells her mother that Frank molested her. Mom takes her to a pediatrician, who loops in the police. Our detectives try to figure out whether Katherine is using Chelsea as a pawn in the divorce, or whether Frank is a serial pedophile. They conclude the latter, and charge him with sexually abusing Chelsea. Frank skips town in the middle of his trial, and, a la Roman Polanski, flies to Paris, where he publicly paws Rose. He is convicted despite his absence. Katherine takes a public victory lap, while Chelsea grimaces at the assembled paparazzi.

This story mirrored the Woody Allen scandal. In 1992, Allen left his wife, Mia Farrow, for Farrow’s 20-year-old daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The same year, Farrow’s 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, reported that Allen molested her. Unlike tonight’s show, Dylan’s charges were never adjudicated in a criminal court. The DA declined to prosecute, noting how hard a trial would be on Dylan.

Allen sued Farrow for custody of Dylan, which he lost. You can read the judge’s scathing condemnation of Allen’s conduct. That judge concluded that “we will probably never know what occurred” that day. [Read more…]

SVU Episode #15-21: “Post-Mortem Blues”

One week after SVU’s heroine survived the ultimate physical danger, the show plunked her in the middle of a legal and emotional dilemma almost as dangerous. I admit, I had doubts about the premise of “Post-Mortem Blues.” How could this heroic woman be blamed, much less charged with a crime, for the suicide of monstrous Lewis? But the SVU writers showed why they’re the best in the business, demonstrating how skeptical eyes can interpret things differently and the ambiguities to be found in facts that seemed so clear.

Verdict: A-

Recap:

In the midst of kidnapping Olivia and a little girl, Lewis shoots himself in the head. The SVU detectives are running up the steps to rescue Olivia, and are listening to her plight on their police radios, just as Lewis kills himself. His blood spatters her face.

Lewis deviously manages to haunt Olivia even after he’s dead. He shot himself with his left hand, staging the scene to look like Olivia did it. With all the Russian Roulette they played, the M.E. can’t say who pulled the trigger. The little girl was looking away when the shots were fired. Internal Affairs investigates Olivia, wondering if she actually killed Lewis.

Thereupon commences a massive legal nightmare. A sultry defense attorney is appointed to defend her. All of Olivia’s colleagues are called to testify against her; they privately discuss whether to perjure themselves on her behalf. Barred from working, Olivia spends a lot of time with her psychologist and drinking wine. [Read more…]

A Dream Visit to SVU –by Elexa Nosonchuk

SVU is on a hiatus this week, but this story will make you love the show even more.  This guest post is by Elexa Nosonchuk, one of the biggest SVU fans on the planet.  She visited the set last year via the Dream Foundation.  Here is her inspiring story.  Thanks for sharing this with us, Elexa!  You made me laugh, cry, and … breathe.

elexa mariska breathe pic

 

I have a progressive lung disease that will eventually kill me. The only things that have kept me alive for the last 2 years are experimental treatments, including chemotherapy and steroids. They each have their own side effects which wreak havoc on my body. One of the few things left in my life that I’m able to enjoy is television, and my favorite show is Law & Order: SVU!! I love the show and the inspiring, encouraging message it gives. SVU reruns are constantly on TV and I never get tired of watching them! A few years back, when asked to figure out what one thing I would like as a life wish, it was an easy answer, and thanks to the amazing people at The Dream Foundation (an organization that gives dreams to adults with life threatening illnesses) I was given the opportunity to visit New York so I could go to the filming of the 300th episode of SVU and meet Mariska Hargitay and the cast! Mariska, the driving force behind the show’s message – that sexual assault and domestic violence are never ok – is the show’s star, and my favorite TV actress! When I asked to meet her, I thought I might get to say hi to her for a few minutes and experiencing the city would be the biggest part of my trip, but the people at Dream Foundation and SVU made it so much more!

It started with a private tour of the set at Chelsea Pier. The entire way into the building I was freaking out; I even took a picture of the floor of the elevator. I was able to see each part of the set and got to sit in the judge’s seat in the courtroom. I sat in the interrogation room and watched segments of the episode film. I had multiple moments where I freaked out because I was so excited about everything I was seeing! Every time I passed by one of the actors on set they would stop and take a picture with me and talk to me! Everyone was so extraordinarily nice!! I must have been beet red the entire visit. One of my favorite parts of the visit was meeting the puppies – the actors bring their dogs to work – and I am definitely a dog person!! After meeting most of the cast and crew, there was a little party with cake and photo opportunities for the 300th episode. I was allowed to take a picture with the cast in front of the cake, during which I’m glad I didn’t pass out! I met Dick Wolf, who I didn’t realize was going to be there. I told him all about how I have seen every episode and he indulged my star-struck, wide-eyed freak out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We started walking toward Mariska’s dressing room to see if I could finally get my meet and greet with my hero, and we ended up accidentally running into her as we turned a corner. I literally ran into her. I started giggling uncontrollably and doubled over because I couldn’t breathe (remember, I have bad lungs) and she asked, jokingly, if she needed to walk away so I could breathe again. Obviously, I said no!! We were able to sit and talk for a little while and it was so amazing. She wanted to know all about my disease and she took such a real interest, even tearing up multiple times. I was in total disbelief at how amazingly well the day was going. After hearing my story, Mariska got an idea and asked us to follow her to her dressing room. On her wall she had a frame with white paper in it which had the word “Breathe” drawn on it. She told me the story behind this drawing – she made it during an incident where she had a collapsed lung, and she hung it above her door so she could see it whenever she left her dressing room. She took it down, signed the back of it (ending with, “You are a badass. Never forget that”) and gave it to me. We both cried. She also gave me the ‘Fearlessness’ necklace that she was wearing!!! She wears it in every episode, and is a symbol of her Joyful Heart Foundation – and she gave it to ME!!! Again, we both cried. It was such a surreal feeling to be anywhere near her; I couldn’t believe how perfect the day was.

elexa mariska breathe

I was also able to bring the cast some bracelets that I had been selling that say “Just Breathe.” I was sure none of them would actually wear the bracelets, or that the bracelets would break too easily because they were just made of stretchy string, but I still watched every episode after that looking for the bracelet on one of their wrists. It took me about a year – I don’t know how I missed it the first time I saw the episode – but I finally caught a glimpse of my bracelet on Mariska’s wrist in the episode titled, “Vanity’s Bonfire” from 11/14/12 (have I mentioned how much I love Mariska?!). I haven’t noticed the bracelet on any other episode, but I may have just missed it. The last thing I left with my mark on it was a Dream Foundation hat that Kelli Giddish asked me to sign for her. I was so excited that she wanted my autograph, and she said she would wear the hat in her next marathon. I’m not sure if she ever did, but I hope so!!

Elexa Nosonchuk & Danny Pino

I don’t think it’s possible to explain what that trip meant to me. I’ve been trying not to ramble while I type this because I just want to say all of the incredible things that happened in my quick-talking, excited way that makes everyone tell me to calm down. I was invited back, but since I don’t live in New York, I’ll just have to cherish the memories I already have. Danny Pino has been awesome enough to keep in touch with me on Twitter. Every time I get a message from him it makes my stomach jump and I feel the excitement of being on the set all over again. I wish I had taken more pictures, but I was way too excited to think straight. I don’t know if any of the SVU cast and crew remember that day for anything other than it being the 300th episode. I like to think someone other than Danny might remember me, but I understand that they meet fans all the time. I am so grateful for my trip and the memories I’ll always have! I wish I had a word to explain how excited I was all day, but no words exist.

SVU Episode #15-20: Beast’s Obsession

Tonight’s episode wasn’t about a realistic problem that society faces – there were no untested rape kits, no reluctant witnesses, no restitution for child-porn victims. Tonight’s episode was pure thriller. It was disturbing; it was intense; it left you clenching the edge of your seat.

Recap:

Horrible Lewis escapes from prison, and uses his freedom to torment Olivia by going on a crime spree in Manhattan. By the third commercial, he’s tortured and raped two people and killed seven more. His victims include a hospital nurse, prison guard, defense attorney, and a doctor and her two young daughters. Using the youngest daughter as bait, Lewis lures Olivia to a secluded warehouse. He makes one final unsuccessful attempt at raping her, then forces her to play Russian roulette. Lewis may be the world’s worst forced Russian roulette supervisor, because in the end, he takes the gun from Olivia and shoots himself in the face.

[Read more…]

SVU Episode #15-19: Downloaded Child

This was a disturbing but important episode about the power of child pornography to destroy lives, and the power of the law to help victims get restitution.

Recap:

A little girl named Maddie totters on the brink of a 10-story apartment balcony; our detectives swoop in and save her from falling. Her parents aren’t home, leading the detectives to investigate a child neglect case. They discover that Maddie’s mother, Jenny, was a victim of child pornography herself. Jenny’s erratic behavior stems from her own traumatic childhood. As an eight-year-old, Jenny was videotaped having sex with her stepfather; the video was shared on the Internet thousands of times.

Instead of pressing charges against Jenny for leaving her child alone, the detectives help her collect damages from the men who downloaded pornographic images of her. But collecting from one man at a time is logistically difficult. The Violence Against Women Act allows Jenny to collect from a single rich porn viewer the entire $4 million she’s owed in damages. If he wants to sue the other offenders, he can.

Verdict: A

What they got right:

There is an ongoing legal debate about how child-porn victims can collect damages from offenders who downloaded their images. The Supreme Court just heard arguments in January on this very issue.

In the real case of Paroline v. Amy Unknown, an eight-year-old girl named Amy was sexually abused by her uncle, who then posted the images online. Amy’s images were traded thousands of times among child pornographers. When Amy (at age 17) started receiving notices from the government about these cases, she hired a lawyer and started suing the offenders, one by one, for restitution. The Violence Against Women Act allows victims of child pornography to sue people who saw their images, and collect money damages including lost income, counseling, medical expenses, and attorney’s fees. Using VAWA, Amy has succeeded in collecting about $1.7 million from more than 170 men.

In January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case Amy brought against Donald Paroline. Paroline was caught with hundreds of images of child pornography, including two pictures of 8-year-old Amy. Amy sued him for the restitution due from all offenders who viewed her images; the Fifth Circuit upheld her claim. This is known as “joint and several liability,” and effectively forces the porn offender, rather than the victim, to collect from the other offenders.

But other courts have held that a single offender can only be held responsible for his own portion of the restitution. In an unusual move, a bipartisan group of Senatorsfiled a brief with the Supreme Court, in which they explicitly stated that they did mean to include this form of restitution in VAWA for victims like Amy. Hang tight to find out what the Supremes say.

Tonight’s episode also highlighted that child pornography isn’t a victimless crime. Each time an image is downloaded, the child is revictimized. I loved the courtroom scene where Jenny confronted the child porn offender (right after his daughter finished speaking on his behalf). It was very realistic and summarized the harrowing issues that cases like this present.

Many American judges feel that watching child porn is victimless crime. It’s not. The damages caused by this marketplace and all the actors in it are devastating. I wish every judge in America would watch this episode of SVU.

What they got wrong:

No way would Olivia bring Jenny to her own personal therapist. Detectives usually try to keep their personal and professional lives far apart.  I’ve even known detectives and prosecutors who refuse to keep family photos on their desks for that reason.

What do you think, SVU fans? Should a single porn viewer be responsible for the damages caused by every other offender who views the images? Who should have the burden of collecting damages, the victim or the offender? And did Olivia and Cassidy break up or get back together? (I couldn’t tell.) Leave your comments!