For years, Hope Cheston thought her rape case had been “swept under the rug.”
In 2012, Cheston was sexually assaulted by an armed security guard at an apartment complex near Atlanta while she was visiting a friend, according to court records.
She was 14. The guard, Brandon Lamar Zachary, was 22.
He was convicted of rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison — but, Cheston said, the security company that hired him never contacted her or apologized for what happened.
And ever since the attack, she said, she has wrestled with doubt and regret.
“Every victim has that — ‘Well I should’ve did this, I should’ve did that, I shouldn’t have been here in the first place,’ ” Cheston said.
But in an extraordinary move, jurors in Clayton County, Ga., have awarded her a “life-changing” and “history-making” sum of money that, she said, represents what a victim’s pain is worth: $1 billion.
“It was a shocking moment; it was a beautiful moment,” she said of hearing the jury’s decision to award her $1 billion in damages in a lawsuit against the security company that hired her rapist. “It showed human kindness in its purest form.”
When it was all over on Tuesday, Cheston said, jurors hugged her and told her: “You’re worth something.”
The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault, but Cheston identified herself Wednesday at a news conference.
She had filed a suit against the security company, Crime Prevention Agency, as well as the apartment complex and a property management company. In her complaint, she said she had emotional distress, pain and suffering, and depression.
The apartment complex, HACC Pointe South, and the property management company, Hammond Residential Group, were dismissed from the lawsuit, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That left the Crime Prevention Agency as the sole defendant — the only entity on the hook for the $1 billion award.
The security company — which has since changed its name, according to Cheston’s lawyer — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regarding the $1 billion award, Cheston’s attorney, Chris Stewart, told reporters that he didn’t expect his client to collect in full.
“What that number stands for is the most important thing,” he said. “We don’t care what we end up finally recovering from this company. We know they don’t have $1 billion. But it’s what 12 people in the state of Georgia said a victim of rape is worth that echoes louder.”
He added: “We already got our victory.”
And, Stewart said, it was a “huge victory” — not only for his client, but also for other victims of sexual assault.
Asked how long it would take to collect damages, Stewart said he told his client from the start that “the money, at the end of the day, isn’t going to matter. It’s what the jury writes down that’s going to fill the hole in her heart that that man tore out.”
Cheston, now 20, said it took time and “soul-searching” for her to be able to pursue the lawsuit.
“My childhood was stolen,” she told reporters Wednesday, the day after the jury’s decision was read. “I had to basically build up my own self-esteem and remind myself who I am and just where I’m meant to go and remember my purpose on this Earth and not let this man feel like he took my purpose.”
She added that “it did take a lot for me to say, ‘You know, this is beyond me. I need to finally nip this in the bud and finally get my justice.’ Because for the longest [time], I did not receive my justice.”
Stewart, her lawyer, told reporters that it was “a beautiful day, a beautiful message for the country and a huge victory for women around the United States” who are coming forward with their own stories of being victimized by sexual assault. They are, he said, showing others that “we will be heard and there are people out there that truly value us.”
Cheston said she was glad she stepped forward.
“This $1 billion isn’t just my $1 billion,” she said about the settlement. “This number on this sheet of paper — it’s my case, yes, but it’s all of our case.”