Victims testifying in sexual assault cases deserve respect in United States courts

Ali Raisman competes in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil (pictured above). Raisman was one of the individuals assaulted by Nassar and while she immediately did not want to testify, she eventually came forward and spoke at the trial due to the comforting nature set by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

In the wake of the Dr. Lawrence  G. Nassar conviction, it’s clear the case shed a crucial light on sexual assault, and also raised important questions about how to properly treat victims throughout trials. 

Those who find themselves willing to publicly accuse and demand punishment for their assaulters deserve to be handled with sensitivity and the utmost respect in a court of law.

“Usually when you report a crime, you expect to be believed,” The Guardian reported. “Victims of burglary do not have to prove that they have been burgled or to justify their behavior before the burglary. With rape and sexual assault allegations, victims still find themselves subjected to hostile questioning.”

Victims of sexual assault are often treated as the ones on trial, as opposed to their offenders. This is unacceptable and perpetuates a negative stigma of victim blaming throughout society.

This treatment can be extremely harmful to sexual assault victims. For example, in Frances Andrade’s cross-examination, she was accused of lying multiple times when testifying against her assaulter, according to The Guardian, which likely contributed to her committing suicide just three days later. 

“I would never have put myself through the trauma of a court case if it wasn’t true,” sexual assault survivor Tina Renton told The Guardian. For the victims that push their cases all the way to the courtroom, there should be no reason to question the validity of their accusations. 

Getting on the stand and reliving their trauma in front of an entire room of people is not a simple task by any means. 

It is essential to start treating the victims testifying in court with respect and empathy—which is exactly what Judge Rosemarie Aquilina did in the Nassar case.  

“Judge Aquilina did what Michigan State University officials, USA Gymnastics and the Karolyi ranch officials did not: Immediately believed the women who had been abused, validated their lives and ended their perpetrator’s access to them and other victims,” NBC News reported.

Throughout the trial, Aquilina not only provided comforting and encouraging words to the victims, but also consistently shut down Nassar’s pleas to avoid listening to the testimonies of his victims. She set “a baseline for how victims’ impact statements should be heard in a court of law, and how justice can be meted out by judges who are compassionate to victims, and deliberate and pragmatic with abusers,” as reported by NBC News.

Even if other judges learn how to properly treat victims of sexual assault from the actions of Aquilina, some survivors will still not feel comfortable enough to face their abusers in court. More convictions could be made if the entire ordeal of cross-examination was avoided in sexual assault cases altogether, a concept with which England and Wales are currently conducting experiments.

There, victims are “able to provide evidence in prerecorded cross-examinations to be played to the jury once a trial begins,” according to The Guardian. “It was found that defendants, when confronted with the strength of the evidence against them before the trial, were more likely to enter an early guilty plea, reducing the trauma for victims, speeding up the justice process and saving money.”

We need to implement a similar policy in the United States in order to avoid mistreating victims of sexual abuse and to provide a larger platform for which they can come forward. No victim should be made to feel like the criminal justice system is working against them, and it all starts with how we handle them in the courtroom.