In Providence, Rhode Island, a police officer is on trial for allegedly raping an intoxicated woman that he had offered to drive home. Back in 2007, the woman alleges that Officer Marcus Huffman picked her up outside of a nightclub, after she had been refused admittance on the grounds that she was too intoxicated. She then says that he took her to a public bathroom, raped her, and left her there unconscious. She also claims that, horrifically, Huffman was the one of the police officers to arrive at the hospital to take her rape report, and that he was grinning at her.
The defense declined to make an opening statement in the case, so the exact grounds on which they are arguing against the allegations are unclear. But whether they’re claiming misidentification of the accused, that no sexual contact ever took place, or that all sexual contact was consensual, they absolutely are engaging in victim-blaming and rape apologist tropes.
Huffman’s lawyer, Robert Caron, suggested there was no hint of coercion in the images as he tried to counter allegations that his client took advantage of a drunk and helpless woman.
“You’re walking on your own,” he told her. “He’s not even looking back at you. You’re following him.”
The woman said she was feeling sick from a night of heavy drinking on March 17, 2007 and was turned away by the club’s owner when Huffman, in his marked police cruiser, offered her a ride so she could use a bathroom. She said she remembered being driven to the substation and then waking up in a bathroom stall there with her pants undone and her undergarments removed.
She then walked to her aunt’s house nearby — she said she was familiar with the area because she used to deal drugs there — and was taken to the hospital.
Caron, the defense lawyer, did not give an opening statement to the jury, but tried to seize on apparent inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony. He reminded her that she told hospital staff that she had woken up in Huffman’s car with her clothes off — a statement she did not recall making.
The woman also testified she was still drunk the morning after the alleged attack and so could not recall what happened inside the substation, yet Caron noted she was coherent enough at the time to give a state police officer directions to the building.
The woman said the owner went over and spoke to Huffman through the car window and then left. Then, she said, Huffman called her over to the window. She said she needed to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t get into the club. She said he told her to get into the car.
“He said he could get me home safe,” she testified.
But, defense attorney Robert Caron said on cross-examination, Huffman didn’t get out of the car or force her to get in, right?
The Fall River woman previously had testified that she’d consumed at least three shots each of vodka, cognac and rum, drunk an additional cup of cognac, and shared four marijuana cigars before a night of partying on March 17, 2007.
“But you can handle your alcohol,” defense attorney Robert J. Caron said.
“Not as much as I had that night,” the woman replied.
While it would seem that the only viable defense in this case at all (assuming there is no DNA evidence; none has been mentioned), is to say that Huffman is the wrong man, and this is a case of mistaken identity. But they seem to instead be going with the “bitch is lying, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and anyway she wanted it” defense. A classic, of course. Then again, while I can’t personally imagine any scenario in which sexual contact between an on duty police officer and a drunk woman he was supposed to be assisting can be construed as sex rather than rape, I’m not on the jury.
Defense attorney Caron is clearly attempting to downplay the accuser’s level of intoxication on the night in question, even as he offers absolutely no legitimate reasoning as to why she would have then been in Huffman’s car and refused entrance to the nightclub. At the same time, of course, his case is almost certainly benefiting from the accuser’s admission of intoxication and drug use, as people tend to be disbelieving of those who file rape charges in general, and especially so when the accuser was engaging in behavior that only “bad girls” do.
In fact, the defense’s case is almost certain to benefit from prejudice on multiple levels. There’s the fact that the accused rapist is a police officer, and if history is any indication, juries tend to believe police officers far before they believe those making accusations against them. There’s the fact that the accuser’s mind didn’t work in obvious and logical ways, and juries are likely to see rape accusers who can remember some things and not others not as humans who have been through a trauma, but as very bad liars. There’s the fact that the woman was drinking and taking drugs, something that many still believe causes a victim of rape to be partially to blame for the assault, or likely to make her have consensual sex and then file rape charges in the morning. There’s the fact that the accuser identifies as a lesbian, and a non-heterosexual sexual identity in our society is just generally seen as a negative mark against anybody. There’s the fact that she admitted she used to sell drugs, something that many feel will make her unreliable in all other areas of her life. And, of course, there’s the fact that juries tend to be disbelieving of rape accusers in all circumstances, from the very start. We of course do not yet know how this case will turn out, but the deck is stacked against this accuser in a myriad of ways, regardless of the truth.1
And I, for one, am absolutely just sick to death of rape trial verdicts coming down to the identity and biography of the victim, and whether or not her every action meets with social approval. I’m sick of belief or disbelief in what an accuser claims coming down to whether she is seen as a “good girl” or a “bad girl.” I’m sick of misogynistic stereotypes, classist and racist biases, and all-around privileged and prejudiced expectations of female behavior being the deciding factor.
But just as sick as I am of that, I’m also sick of confusion about what exactly rape is and what consent does and doesn’t mean. Conrad sees fit to interrogate the accuser on whether or not she “willingly” got into the car as well as went into the bathroom with Huffman. Putting aside for the moment whether or not she was ever given a real choice in the matter — I think the accuser said it best herself when, in response to the above question highlighted in the second quoted article, she said, “He’s a cop. He doesn’t have to force you. You just listen to a cop.” — the fact remains that her willingness to either get in the car or enter the bathroom with Huffman proves absolutely nothing. Lack of willingness would have likely gone a long way in the jury members’ minds in terms of accuser credibility, but willingness means absolutely nothing. Because willingness to get in a car, and willingness to follow someone into a bathroom, proves absolutely nothing, not a single thing, not even one, about whether or not she consented to sex with him.
I’ve willingly followed men into all kinds of locations. Cars, buses, taxis, bars, houses, office buildings, back rooms of stores, the woods, basements, attics, restaurants, and many more. I’ve had consensual sex with exceedingly few of those men. And exceedingly few of them have ever decided to rape me. Any time I’ve had sex with a man, my willing presence was not ever the signal of consent. And every time I was raped, my willing presence was not ever the cause of that rapist’s actions.
There are only two questions that need to be on the minds of the jury right now. The first is whether or not Officer Huffman ever had sexual contact with the accuser. The second is whether or not, if he did, the victim was both able to give consent and actually did give consent. There may be a couple smaller questions that lead up to the big two (was the victim intoxicated enough that she could not give meaningful consent?), but that’s really it. Everything else prior to the moment of the alleged assault is just a distraction, and it’s also a way of letting rapists off the hook and holding victims responsible for their rapists’ actions.
The question of “was it rape?” does not depend on an alleged victim’s actions two days, 12 hours, 10 minutes, or even 20 seconds before the alleged assault. What matters is whether or not consent was present at the moment the assault allegedly occurred, and whether or not the alleged perpetrator acted without regard for the absence of consent. If there was no consent from one party and the other party acted, it was rape. The end. And yes, contrary to what the politics of rape trials will tell you, it really is just that simple.
- It should be noted that Officer Huffman is a black man. The race of the victim, due to the fact that the media has rightfully withheld her identity, is not currently known. If, however, she is white, it is entirely possible that this will work against Officer Huffman in the minds of jurors. I hope it should go without saying, though, that this is not the way that we want to win rape cases. Guilty verdicts in rape cases based on the race of the accused aren’t really convictions for rape at all, they’re just convictions for being non-white. This provides absolutely no benefit to any movement that is serious about social justice and anti-violence work. ↩