So what does all this tell us about justice?
“All this” meaning the fact that Ghislaine Maxwell got 20 years on Tuesday and the next day, R. Kelly got 30. It was, make no mistake, an indisputably good thing to see those punishments handed down. And it’s hard to blame anyone who found in it a reason to rejoice.
It’s also difficult to join them.
Understand: you will find no remorse here over the likelihood that the 55-year-old former R&B hit maker and the 60-year-old former socialite will grow old in federal custody. He manipulated and raped children, she procured and groomed children to be raped by the monster Jeffrey Epstein. So the promise of long-term stays in the graybar hotel doesn’t exactly break one’s heart.
But by the same token, it also brings little gratification. Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, would likely disagree. As he told reporters covering the Kelly case, “I hope this sentencing serves as its own testimony that it doesn’t matter how powerful, rich or famous your abuser may be or how small they may make you feel. Justice only hears the truth.”
One is loathe to pick a fight with a lawyer taking a well-deserved victory lap after a hard-fought trial. He deserves that. At the same time, however, one recoils from lofty pronouncements of what this says about justice. Especially given that accountability is hardly the norm where sexual predators are concerned.
As illustration of that point, consider a few horrors from recent years.
Like Judge Marcia Silva in Middlesex County, N.J., who said that the forcible rape — it left her bleeding — of a 12-year-old girl by a 16-year-old boy was “not an especially heinous or cruel offense.”
Like Judge Matthew Murphy of Niagara County, N.Y., giving probation to a defendant who, as a 17-year-old, raped multiple 15- and 16-year-old girls, because sending him to prison was not “appropriate.”
Like Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County, Calif., sentencing convicted rapist Brock Turner to six months because anything harsher “would have a severe impact on him.”
Like Judge James Troiano of Monmouth County, NJ, declining to try an accused teenage rapist as an adult because he “comes from a good family.”
But even those vivid examples don’t paint the full picture. For those judges to say those bizarre things and make those bizarre rulings, the cases had to get to court. Most don’t.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one woman in six will suffer an attempted or completed sexual assault in her lifetime. For every 1,000 attacks, only 50 people will be arrested, only 25 incarcerated.
Those abysmal numbers — and to be fair, the statistics are not much better for robbery and assault — do not fill one with confidence in the justice system. More to our current point, they suggest, much as those sad sack judges do, an ongoing failure to do right by survivors of sexual assault, the vast majority of whom are women.
So you know what these cases say about justice? They say that, after years of openly flouting the law, high-profile offenders may, given sufficient media pressure and public attention, be held to account. Repeat: may. If your case doesn’t fall within those parameters, tough luck; you’re very likely to watch helplessly as your attacker goes unpunished. And you might be forgiven for thinking that doesn’t feel much like justice at all.
Just a different kind of rape.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. ©2022 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.