From time to time we meet with law enforcement officers to talk about courtroom testimony. These men and women, who would dodge bullets if it were necessary to protect you and me, get very nervous when they testify.
So do medical doctors. They can make life-and-death decisions in a flash. Their skills save lives so regularly that it becomes routine. But, they hate to testify.
Imagine how it must feel to be a rape victim. Now, imagine that that rape victim has Down’s Syndrome.
We tried that case in Fayette Superior Court this week.
Our victim was terrified. Although she had known her assailant for years, when we discussed the case with her in the weeks before court, she could barely speak his name.
That’s when my staff began to shine. Michelle Ivey is the victim advocate in that office. Jeff Turner is my chief investigator. Together, they began to earn the victim’s trust. Soon, Mr. Jeff and Miss Michelle were her friends.
“All you have to do is tell the truth,” they told her.
“The truth, and nothing but the truth,” our victim replied.
“That’s right,” Jeff said. “And you’re gonna have to say his name. You’re a strong person and you can do this. We’ll do the rest.”
Monday the trial began. In the courtroom next door, Warren Sellers was prosecuting the man who came back from Mexico and stabbed a woman to death in front of her children, with one of her boys trying to pull him off of his mother. Most of our staff was tending to those children and the other witnesses.
On Tuesday our rape victim took a deep breath, released the death grip she had on Michelle’s hand and approached the witness stand. I walked beside her, trying to block the defendant from her view. She raised her hand and promised to tell the truth.
Her mother would need to testify later, so she couldn’t be in the courtroom. She scanned the audience. There was her sister. There was Miss Michelle. And there was Mr. Jeff.
I’ve always believed that God gives us strength when we need it. As I questioned this young lady about the worst experience of her life, I saw it happen once again. She called the defendant by his name. She described what he did to her. She corrected the defense lawyer and me when we said something inaccurate.
Finally, I asked her if she saw the person who did these things to her in the courtroom. She stood on her feet, looked the defendant squarely in the eyes and pointed her finger right at him.
The next day it was time for closing arguments. All of the witnesses were allowed to re-enter the courtroom and sit in the audience. Our victim and her mother and sister sat near the front. Michelle’s heart sank. Jeff was needed in the murder trial. And our victim had asked where he was.
Quickly, Michelle found David Younker, one of our young prosecutors. Even though he was moments from the start of a trial, David put down his file and sat on the bench behind our victim.
The defense lawyer gave his closing argument. Throughout his presentation, I heard muffled sniffing behind me. I learned later that our victim quietly cried the whole time. It is difficult to hear somebody discuss an event that was traumatic for you. It’s even harder when they are accusing you of not telling the truth about it.
Then I gave my closing argument. When I finished, the judge declared a short recess. I went to speak with our victim.
She grabbed me in a tight bear hug. Then she squeezed my shoulders with her tiny, chubby hands. She looked up at me with eyes that were still red from crying.
“Thank you, Scott Ballard, for standing up for me.”
I told her that she had an entire army of people that would stand up for her.
The next day twelve jurors did just that. They convicted the defendant on two counts of rape and one count of aggravated sodomy. Guilty on every offense charged.
Our victim wasn’t in court for the verdict. We were afraid of what it might do to her if the defendant walked free.
Her mother wrote something on a piece of paper. It was the victim’s phone number. “Would you be the one to call her and tell her?” she asked me.
So I made the call. “Guess what! The jury believed every word you told them. The jury found him guilty.”
“So he won’t hurt me no more?”
“No,” I assured her. “You’re safe.”
“Will you do one more thing for me?” she asked. “Will you give Miss Michelle my number?”
“I’ll do better than that. Here she is right now.”
I handed the phone to Michelle. She told the victim that she had done the right thing by telling the truth.
And our victim, finally finished with her nightmare, said, “And nothing but the truth.”