A Utah county judge is facing public outrage after he praised a former Mormon bishop as a “good man” while sentencing him. This has reignited a conversation on whether privilege and judicial bias are affecting trial outcomes as well as how rape victims are seen and treated by the public.
Judge Thomas Low sentenced Keith Robert Vallejo to concurrent terms that could reach a maximum of life in prison after Vallejo was found guilty on 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape.
“The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinary, good man,” said Judge Low.
“But great men sometimes do bad things,” he added in a flippant afterthought.
A long list of ‘good guys’
According to Mic, one prosecutor speculated that the judge had been influenced by numerous letters attesting to Vallejo’s character as well as the testimony of Vallejo’s brother, who compared the defendant to Jesus and claimed both had been wrongfully convicted.
Dubious Jesus comparisons aside, imagine being 23-year-old rape survivor Julia Kirby, standing in court for Vallejo’s sentencing and hearing someone legally authorized to decide on right and wrong publicly sympathizing not with you but with your rapist.
I’ve got some disturbing news for Judge Low: the list of “good guys” who rape is long. This is mainly because the overwhelming majority of rapists are people we know, who may be doing some good stuff when they’re not raping.
The truth is that the more you fit the image of the white, middle- or upper-class, privileged, harmless boy next door, the more people will jump to your defence; the more people will identify with you (and that includes police officers and judges who often subconsciously see nothing more than a younger version of themselves or their kids staring back at them from the stand, desperate for a second chance); and the more they will victim-blame instead of punishing the aggressor. Rape, in these instances, is often seen as an unfortunate transgression, a solitary mistake, a momentary lapse in judgement that shouldn’t affect someone’s bright future.
When those “all-American” high school football players in Steubenville raped and urinated on an unconscious classmate, and callously videotaped it for all to see, their community reacted with horror. But they weren’t horrified by these vile acts as much as by the mere possibility that “such good boys” could have done something so heinous. CNN reported on their “promising futures” and what “good students” they were, instead of focusing on what the traumatic experience could do to a young woman.
When Brock Turner was sentenced to a measly six months in prison for sexual assault and attempted rape, instead of the recommended minimum of six years, news articles focused on his swimming records, details that should have had no bearing on his case. And yet the same judge who sentenced Turner to only six months in jail sentenced a Latino man to three years in a similar case.
A Canadian issue too
Judges are not fully impartial and unaffected by their own preconceptions, life experiences, and personal prejudices.
It is imperative that we scrutinize judicial rulings and ensure that biases, in the form of gender stereotypes and popular myths about how female victims are supposed to behave (often referred to as “rape culture”), as well as white privilege, class privilege, and male privilege, do not affect the outcome. In the case of Judge Camp, were it not for a group of women law professors who made a formal complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council, his ruling may have escaped scrutiny and he may have remained on the bench. People often believe that rapists are evil, socially maladjusted, lurking figures that hide behind bushes and jump on unsuspecting victims in the middle of the night, but statistics paint a murkier picture. In fact, 80 per cent of the people committing sexual assault are friends or family of the victim.
Sixty-seven per cent of Canadians say they have personally known at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. If these crimes exist, then so do the men who commit them.
They are your neighbours, your co-workers, your boyfriends, your classmates, your brothers, your best friend. And the more “average” these “good men who rape” appear, the more socially acceptable, likeable, and popular they are; the more they’re a part of our daily lives either in physical form (see Jerry Sandusky) or via the radio waves (see Jian Ghomeshi) or the television (see Bill Cosby); and the less inclined we are to want to believe they could be one of those bad men who rape.
Many disturbing cases in Canada have clearly demonstrated that more diversity is needed in the magistrature along with better education in the form of seminars on sexual assault law. The Canadian Judicial Council and the Canadian Judicial Centre have both recognized these needs and are taking steps towards improvement.
Women already face numerous hurdles when coming forward to report sexual assault. If we’re not making sure that the reporting police officers, the prosecutors, the judges, and the media are adequately trained to treat these women with respect and dignity, and to understand that there is no perfect victim, we are letting them down and victimizing them all over again. And, most importantly, we are perpetuating the conditions that discourage victims from coming forward.