For those shocking words and a lot more like it, Superior Court Judge Derek G. Johnson of Orange County, Calif., on Thursday earned a public admonishment from the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance, which said his remarks “reflected outdated, biased and insensitive views about sexual assault victims who do not ‘put up a fight.’
“Such comments cannot help but diminish public confidence and trust in the impartiality of the judiciary,” wrote Lawrence J. Simi, the commission’s chairman. They also happen to breach judicial ethics and contradict California law, which does not require proof a rape victim tried to resist.
The commission said Johnson’s comments, made at a 2008 sentencing hearing, came to its attention this year. “This case,” as Johnson labeled it, involved Metin Gurel, convicted of rape, forcible oral copulation, domestic battery, stalking and making threats against his former girlfriend. The day he raped her, according to records, Gurel beat her with a metal baton, threatened to maim her face and vagina with a heated screwdriver, burn her face and hair with a lit cigarette lighter and shoot and kill her.
Unbelievably, Johnson cited his time in the district attorney’s sexual assault unit when he lectured the prosecutor on why he was imposing a six-year sentence instead of the 16 requested. “I’ve seen sexual assault,” Johnson said from the bench. “I’ve seen women who have been ravaged and savaged whose vagina was shredded by the rape. I’m not a gynecologist but … if someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case.” The threats and rape were “technical,” he said, “more of a criminal law test than a real live criminal case.”
Confronted with the 10 to 0 decision, Johnson, the commission reported, offered an apology that didn’t sound especially apologetic. While admitting his comments were “inappropriate,” he blamed his frustration with the prosecutor for asking for a sentence not justified by the law.
I wonder about all the crimes Johnson didn’t pursue when he worked with the district attorney, the ones that didn’t meet his high threshold for what constitutes a rape. Must someone who appears in his court be near death, damaged inside and out to be taken seriously?
The scary thing, of course, is that Johnson is not alone. Who would think that in 2012 we would still be discussing what qualifies as rape? Those victories claimed when rape victims could no longer be subjected to courtroom grilling about short skirts and sexual histories were obviously premature; the urge among some to discount a rape victim’s story, it seems, is primal and persistent.
Missouri Rep. Todd Akin R), like Johnson, doesn’t claim to be a doctor or scientist. But his definition of “legitimate” rape sounds a lot like the judge’s view, the words about a woman’s body shutting down repeated from some bizarre script. Did they all get in a room and come up with this theory of the female body’s extraordinary power to repel not just a rapist’s sperm, but the rape itself? Will they be the ones making the decision for a woman requesting an abortion, in the case of rape?
Those who make the law and see it enforced, who concocted all sorts of pseudo-scientific, sometimes theological rape theories, paid a price in the last election. Akin failed to win a Senate seat, as did Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Johnson, though, is still a judge.
In a post-election Politico column, Karen Hughes, former adviser to President George W. Bush had some advice for her party: “If another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue.”
For humanitarian as well as political reasons, any person, regardless of party or belief, would do well to heed Hughes’ counsel on discussing rape, with or without threat of retribution.
Advice to rape victims is always to do whatever you have to do to survive. How sad that in Johnson’s court and in the court of opinion of those who would pass judgment, that very survival will be held against the search for justice and relief.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3