Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rapists May Strike Again and Again, Experts Say : Courts: Some say it's better to get a conviction on a lesser charge to get the offender off the streets rather than risk acquittal.

May 29, 1994|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most common myth about rapists is that they commit their crimes for sex.

In fact, most are on a violent mission to humiliate and degrade women and to make up for their own insecurities. But a single attack might not be enough. That's why many rapists strike again and again, said Manhattan Deputy Dist. Atty. Linda Fairstein, who as chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit in that section of New York City has gained a nationwide reputation.

And that's why it's also critical that sex crime prosecutors go after sexual predators as vigorously as possible, she said.

"I'm not a prosecutor who believes plea-bargaining is entirely evil," said Fairstein, whose book, "Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape," was published in October. "But I know that by the second or third time you see someone in court, he is a sex offender, period.

"That's when I bite the bullet and go after it with everything I have, even if it is a weak case," she said. "Even if we lose, I'll know we tried. I don't want to pick up the paper and find that someone who got out on a plea-bargain has finally killed someone."

That's exactly what critics say happened in the case of repeat rapist Edward Patrick Morgan Jr., 28, of Orange.

Four young women charged that he raped them in cases that stretch back a decade. In all but one case, Morgan was let off on lesser charges. In the case of one woman who said Morgan handcuffed her to a tree and sexually assaulted her, prosecutors declined to file rape charges at all.

Critics say if more had been done to keep Morgan behind bars, Leanora Annette Wong, 23, of Huntington Beach, might still be alive. Wong met Morgan on May 19 at an Orange nightclub. Her body was found the following morning in a parking lot across the street. Her genitals had been mutilated. Morgan now faces the death penalty.

"That guy should never have been on the street," said Ben Wong, grief stricken over his daughter's murder. "How could this happen?"

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles J. Middleton, head of the sex crimes unit, has defended his office's actions, saying the victims' credibility posed problems in all but one of the cases.

While prosecutors may have believed the victims, it would have been difficult--if not impossible--to obtain convictions, Middleton said.

In some rare instances, it is better to get a conviction on a lesser charge--such as statutory rape, the charge Morgan pleaded guilty to in two of the cases--rather than risk an acquittal, he said.

But activists say that panders to jurors who believe that a woman who has a drink or engages in sexual foreplay such as kissing gives up her right to say "no" to sex.

"That kind of attitude completely underestimates the jury system--and victims," said Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who is known for championing feminist causes.

"Jurors are women, or men who have mothers, sisters and wives," she said. "They can look at the evidence and decide for themselves. When prosecutors don't want to take that chance, it's just reinforcing those stereotypes. And it gives these guys a license to rape again."

Tamara Mason, co-coordinator of the Newport Beach chapter of the National Organization for Women, agrees.

"People just do not put that much stock in crimes against women," she said. "You don't see that same attitude with crimes against men."

Fairstein notes that public attitudes have changed--if only slightly--regarding rape victims, and even in cosmopolitan areas like Manhattan, there are still resistant stereotypes.

But Fairstein said she makes sure her prosecutors are aggressive lawyers who anticipate defense attacks on the victims and vigorously shoot down stereotypes about rape victims just as they would fight racial bias.

"Much of the problem with victim credibility still exists, but that's what the jury selection process is all about," Fairstein said. "These cases are not extraordinarily difficult. You have to work harder to look for what I call 'reverse jurors,' the opposite of the conservative types that prosecutors usually pick. You try to find young, hip, liberal types--not blame-the-victim types--to try your case."

Fairstein said trying such cases amounts to a legal victory each time around because prosecutors change attitudes in the process. Fairstein said sex-crime prosecutors also have an obligation to make frequent speaking engagements to get the word out before rapes occur.

"We need to change attitudes in advance, because if we wait until trial, that's a little too late," she said.

Barbara West, assistant director of the Community Service Programs' sexual assault victim services, the only rape crisis center in Orange County, said she believes the deck is stacked against prosecutors--and victims.

"I do feel that their hands are tied in many cases," West said. "The legal system is tilted toward the defendant and not for the victims and there are not enough district attorneys--those are some of the problems."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|