AN URGENT CALL FOR REFORM IN THE MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE.
If Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has become famous for one thing during his tenure, it’s the sheer number of powerful people he’s let off the hook at the expense of their victims. He notoriously dropped a fraud and larceny case against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., overruling his own staff, which, had he proceeded, might have had meaningful and dire implications for the Trump campaign.
But nowhere has Vance been more derelict in his duty than when he has given high-powered men accused of sexual assault free passes, further harming the women they assaulted. The names are familiar to you: Harvey Weinstein. Dominque Strauss Kahn. Jeffrey Epstein. That these men are overwhelmingly wealthy, and that the women they assaulted are not is not a coincidence. That these men are white and many of the people they assaulted are women of color is not a coincidence. Vance has enabled and enforced a two-tiered justice system that protects the rich from accountability and doesn’t protect the rest of us from anything.
Sexual assault is terrifyingly common. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that 1 out of 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Many more will be subject to attempted assaults, and to sexual abuse and harassment. Even women who have been lucky enough to avoid being a victim of this kind of misconduct know that the threat of it changes decisionmaking. What do you wear to a party? Should you take a cab or the subway home? Is it safe to walk here at night? Sexual abuse is a national epidemic that is just as at home in Manhattan as it is anywhere else.
Manhattan needs a progressive DA who has a track record of fighting for equal justice for all. Vance has a track record of working at the behest of the rich and powerful, many of whom make large, conveniently timed donations to his campaign.
We also need aggressive structural reforms that will ensure that every sexual assault survivor receives justice, and that the rich and powerful cannot exploit the system (or a bad faith corruptible DA like Vance) to secure a get-out-of-jail-free card.
I am not intimidated or impressed by power, and my plan to rebuild this office as a unit that exists to provide real justice for all is based in part on my years of experience defending indigent clients within a system that routinely fails them. The system also routinely protects well-off criminals, particularly in matters of sexual assault. That is unacceptable.
We can and will build an office that centers survivors and their experiences and cannot be corrupted by political or economic interests.
HERE’S HOW WE DO IT:
1) MAKE PLEA AGREEMENTS TRANSPARENT. Right now, plea agreements are opaque, especially to the public, and prosecutors are not held accountable for decisions like the one Vance made to allow Dr. Robert Hadden, an OBGYN who assaulted at least 19 women, no jail time, no probation, and no public sex offender registration. Hadden’s only punishment was that he had to stop practicing medicine. Many of his victims were never even notified about the plea agreement. I’ll work with victims throughout the process and always ensure that they are aware of the outcomes of their cases.
2) RE-STAFF THE SEX CRIMES UNIT. Vance has created a culture where these horrific miscarriages of justice are allowed to happen routinely and some of his staffers have enabled it. When ADA Gaffney, then Deputy Chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau, argued for leniency for Jeffrey Epstein, Danny Frost, a communications staffer, repeatedly covered for her in the press, telling reporters that Gaffney had “misunderstood the law”, an absurd excuse that wouldn’t plausible if it were offered on behalf of a legal intern, much less an ADA. Attorneys in my sex crimes unit will be there not only because they are excellent lawyers, but also because they are committed to a victim-centered process and merit-based prosecution. I’ll know that this is the case because I’ll personally reinterview every lawyer in the Sex Crimes Unit and replace any who don’t meet that standard.
3) WE NEED AN EXTERNAL REVIEW. The DA’s office needs an audit of its current practices, immediately, and this must be done by an independent third party. The DAs office has not held itself accountable, so we must.
4) ANNUAL RETRAINING. The sex crimes unit is also woefully undertrained with regard to appropriate handling of sexual assault cases as they relate to the safety and well-being of survivors. This is easily remedied by an office that understands the importance of it and prioritizes it. We also need to support and resource ADAs who work on these cases and protect them against burnout.
5) IMPLEMENT TRANSPARENT REPORTING SO THE PUBLIC CAN HOLD THE OFFICE ACCOUNTABLE. Here’s what you can expect my office to tell you quarterly: how many sex crimes cases are brought to our office from NYPD. How many sex crimes cases come to our office directly from victims. How many sex crimes cases are not prosecuted by our office. How many sex crimes cases are charged by our office. How many sex crimes cases plead out, and to what charges. How many sex crimes cases go to trial. How many sex crimes cases end in conviction. Right now, the office goes to great lengths to obscure that information. We will make it transparent and available to all.
6) REINVESTIGATE UNINDICTED SEX CRIMES. I’ll look at all sex crimes still within the statute of limitations and re-evaluate the case. Too many sexual assault victims haven’t seen justice. And in other cases, too many people have been wrongly convicted. Vance’s head of the Sex Crimes Unit Linda Fairstein famously refused to vacate convictions for the Exonerated Five, yet Vance has continued to rely on her validation— a grotesque perversion of what our justice system exists to do.
7) ENCOURAGE PEOPLE WHO WERE VICTIMIZED AS CHILDREN TO COME FORWARD. In my capacity as an Assemblymember, I co-sponsored a bill that created a one-year window for people who were victims of child sexual abuse to file civil claims against their abuser or against institutions that enabled their abuse. I support legislation to extend that one year window and to expand it to adult victims, as well. Additionally, the law extends the criminal statute of limitations for both misdemeanor and felony sex offenses against a child, allowing victims an additional five years to press charges. It is abhorrent that our system makes it so difficult for people who were abused when they were most vulnerable to get justice. I am determined to change that.
8) HOLD INSTITUTIONS THAT ENABLE SEXUAL ASSAULT ACCOUNTABLE. We already have penalties for enterprise corruption, crimes committed or aided by an organization or institution. These laws are generally used in cases of organized crime, but it’s obvious that sexual assault often occurs within institutions that are aware that it’s happening and do nothing to stop it. Would Matt Lauer or Roger Ailes felt free to prey on staffers at their prospective news organizations if those organizations were held responsible for enabling them? Institutions should not be able to profit from predators.
9) WE BELIEVE IN MERIT-BASED PROSECUTION. This sounds obvious, but if we believe a crime has been committed, we will prosecute it. No matter what. Over and over and over again, Vance has insisted that he can’t proceed with sexual assault cases unless he believes a jury would be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt. In other words, he decides to prosecute based on what he thinks he can win. No survivor should be subjected to the prosecutor’s completely subjective forecasting of what the jury will or won’t do, or the prosecutor’s professional shortcomings.
This is a very important distinction, because it illustrates a key difference between people who fight for justice and people who fight for power: People who care about justice want it as often as possible, and in all cases. People who care about power want a superficially successful win record, composed of easy cases they can’t lose, and they will abandon victims to get it. That is not justice; that is self-aggrandizement.
Inasmuch as I have a “win” record, I will calculate it by whether we did everything within our power to get justice for victims. I would rather fight that battle and sometimes lose a trial than tell a survivor we can’t help them because the man who assaulted them is too powerful, too rich, and the case will be an uphill battle we may not win. Unlike Vance, I’m not afraid to fight.
Lastly, and most importantly, I want you to consider the survivors who did not get justice from the Manhattan DAs office, and should have. Their names and faces are seared into my consciousness, and their stories are all too common. Cy Vance failed these survivors, and for what? A campaign donation? An easier day at work? A better batting average on convictions?
These victim’s lives matter just as much as those of the men who assaulted them, and they did not deserve to be re-traumatized by a DA who abandoned them during a horrific period in their lives. They were treated like expendable plot points in the narratives of powerful men. Anyone who let these men off the hook should have to think every day about the lives of those they damaged by doing that.
These women are brave survivors and you should know them by name.