The word ‘rape’ has negative connotations of anger, misogyny, violation, and victimization. It’s a heinous crime which should be condemned by all; but to blame the victim for it, is utterly despicable.
Alas, this is exactly what has happened to a 24-year-old woman in Pennsylvania.
The woman in question was working as a typist at the state prison at Rockview in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, when she was assaulted on July 25, 2013, by an inmate, Omar Best. She started working in the prison’s central office just over a month ago, on June 10, 2013. But mid-july, she had told prison officials that inmates sometimes entered hallways and stairs that led to her office and, specifically, that she was uncomfortable when Omar entered her office. Omar would sometimes enter her office to empty the trash, though he wasn’t specifically assigned to work there. And on the day of the unfortunate incident, Omar went to her office on the pretext of emptying the trash bin, and grabbed the woman from behind, and choked her till she passed out. Apparently, she tried to blow a distress whistle she carried, but no one heard it. She was raped for 27 minutes by Omar, who is a repeat sex-offender.
Omar Best, 36, of Philadelphia, has quite a long list of sex-related crimes attributed to him. Till now, Omar has been convicted three times before of sex-related offenses. In 2010, he was sentenced to 7 to 15 years in prison for the 1999 abduction and rape of an 18-year-old woman, after DNA evidence linked him to the crime. He pleaded guilty to indecent assault, after being charged with attempted rape. In 2011, in another Philadelphia case, he pleaded guilty to rape and robbery, and was sentenced to 15 years in state prison. And in May of this year, he was sentenced to life in prison as a career offender, after the unfortunate incident with the prison clerk.
In April, the 24-year-old victim filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, her former supervisor, a guard to whom the victim had expressed concerns about Omar, the block manager, and the former superintendent, Marirosa Lamas. According to the lawsuit, the clerk offices where the victim worked, were actually moved from a secure floor where there was no inmate contact to a location that was on a cell block, by the prison superintendent.
Apart from being convicted thrice before, Omar had assaulted a female assistant in a different state prison, before being transferred to Rockview. The lawsuit, blaming the state for the rape, states, “Despite this knowledge, defendants … still allowed Omar Best to have unsupervised access to the offices of female employees.” It goes on to state that, “There were no locked doors between the offices and cell blocks, including Block C where (the victim) worked, except for the copy room.”
In response to the lawsuit filed by the former state prison clerk, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is laying the blame at the victim’s door. Despite the conviction of Omar, and the sacking of the superintendent after an internal investigation of the prison found multiple failings, the victim is being blamed for what was perpetrated against her. A senior deputy attorney general wrote that the woman “acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed to the events,” in response to the lawsuit.
The woman’s lawyer, Clifford Rieders, told CNN, that it was victim shaming at its worst. “Worse than that, it’s an attempt to embarrass the victim.” He added, “It’s total bunk. It’s throwing something out there so they can have it on record. They have no evidence of that.”
“It has no substance, but it’s just the way some lawyers litigate,” Clifford continued, adding that it’s “insulting to women generally who face rape cases only to be told that it’s their fault.”
At the outrage that the deputy attorney general’s statement caused, the office released a statement saying that it required to present all possible defenses and “contributory negligence is one such defense.” In the statement provided to CNN, the attorney general’s office said, “This initial filing should not necessarily be interpreted as meaning this defense will be pursued throughout the entire case,” adding that elected Attorney General Kathleen Kane was not aware that her senior deputy had included that defense in his filing.
“Attorney General Kane is disappointed that she was not made aware of this matter prior to the filing, and was saddened to learn that the filing implied that the victim somehow contributed to this crime.”
The Pennsylvania state victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, said it’s hypocritical to use victim-blaming as a defense for the prison. “I think it’s absolutely deplorable to blame the victim in this case,” Jennifer told CNN.
Of the AG’s defense, Jennifer said this, “It’s not common legalese in rape cases. And it shows a significant lack of sensitivity to not understand the harm this has done to the young woman and the re-victimization she’s going through today. In a rape case, this is plain victim-blaming.”
Be it a developed country like the US, or a developing country like India, the first response to a rape is to blame the victim. Whether it’s in the form of ‘boys will be boys,’ or ‘chow mein made them do it,’ or ‘wearing short skirts is just asking for it,’ or in this case from the US, ‘she acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed to the events,’ the go-to response for rape is to blame the victim.
What will it take to get these people to understand that rape is as much a violation of a woman’s body as her soul? That just because she wore a revealing outfit, she wasn’t asking for ‘it.’ That she is an individual who deserves respect, just because. That when a woman says ‘no,’ it is a no, not ‘maybe,’ not ‘later,’ just plain NO. That she is free to make her own choices when it comes to her body. That she has the ultimate right to act as she sees fit. That nobody can or should force a woman to do anything she feels isn’t right.
Whether it’s a ‘simple defense strategy,’ or the person’s personal views on rape, there is never a good reason to blame the victim for the heinous act of rape. It is the perpetrator who should be blamed, whether it’s a crime of opportunity, or a crime of cold calculation. World over, creeps will be creeps, and I guess they’ll never stop trying innovative ways of blaming women for rape. We women should raise our voices against this injustice, and see to it that we don’t wittingly or otherwise, contribute to a woman who is already suffering.
Let’s stand together in righting such wrongs, at least in the future.