House Therapy: Chapter Three
The day before John and I took a day trip to Grand Lake and finally found our mountain house in early November 2018, I had spent hours e-mailing back and forth with the deputy district attorney who was the lead prosecutor assigned to my assault case, and doing a lot of heavy deliberation. Houses weren’t really on my mind.
I was in the early stages of dealing with the court case, which included 10 charges against my attacker for both my assault and for the kidnapping and sexual assault of another woman in Denver the day prior. The preliminary hearing, which had already been continued once, was on the docket again for the following week, and the deputy DA had just told me my attacker wanted to plea and so I needed to start thinking about whether I wanted to take the case to trial or, in fact, pursue a plea agreement. Up until that point, I had assumed I was headed for testifying at trial.
I waffled back and forth about the decision that day because I had a lot to consider; there were multiple victims, multiple cases and two counties involved in the prosecution of this predator. Deciding how to pursue justice felt like a logic problem, and it also felt like a big responsibility. Because it wasn’t just about me.
When Denver District Attorney Beth McCann filed charges in Denver, she combined my case with the other Denver Survivor’s case, which added complexity to my situation and decisions. (The decision to combine the cases was, if I understood it right, about judicial expediency, since there were so many parts of the police investigation that were completed in common.)
Although there were two crime events included in this combined case, the other Survivor wasn’t as actively involved, so it felt like I was responsible for making a decision about how justice would be achieved for both of us. Or, at least, I took on that responsibility. While the prosecutor encouraged me to make a trial-or-plea decision based on my own needs, it was impossible not to take this other woman into consideration. I will always be tied to her and feel this intense emotional connection to her, even though we had never (and still haven’t) met. I wanted the best for her, wanted the best justice for her, as well as for me. She deserved it. I deserved it.
What I took from my discussions with the prosecution team was that to get a high sentence at trial, both of us needed to testify because the other victim’s part of the case carried the higher charges, including second-degree kidnapping. However, both of us testifying didn’t seem to be a certainty. So if I decided it really was important for me to take him to trial and to testify against him — and ultimately perhaps do so alone — would my attacker then get as long of a sentence as a plea deal negotiated for both of us would produce? And if we took the case to trial and I testified alone, would the other woman – my sister Survivor – feel like she got justice?
Either choice felt like a gamble. It was super confusing. I realize now, too, it was never crystal clear to me whether the charges for the crimes against the other woman would even hold if I decided I wanted to take him to trial even if meant just me testifying, or whether our case then would be split into two again. I’m not even sure that’s a thing.
Also, my attacker had, a few months after he sexually assaulted me, gone on to viciously attack and sexually assault Vanessa Ursini along the Platte River in Arapahoe County, Colorado, pulling her off the trail into a woody area. He was caught immediately afterward and charged, triggering the actual start of the legal proceedings in Denver — the charges for his crimes there filed shortly after.
The Arapahoe County case received a ton of media attention, with the victim coming forward, and so I knew her name. I had heard through the Denver deputy DA that Vanessa was definitely taking him to trial. I had been truly horrified, and horribly retraumatized, by the details of Vanessa’s assault and ached to meet her because we also had this connection no one else could understand, but the deputy DA instructed me not to contact her while our cases were active.
When all was said and done, I was alone in my decision. Other people had opinions, but the decision was mine to make.
Vanessa and her case weighed heavily on me, as did a slew of other factors:
- I wanted to do my part – to take him to trial as Vanessa was or do the plea – whatever it took to build the most on the high sentence he would likely get in her case so that he would never, with certainty, get out of prison.
- I felt so responsible for helping to make sure this man was never on the streets again and could never hurt another woman.
- Also, I had become angry and felt a heavy pain in my gut for the little-or-no-justice most Survivors receive, now that I truly understood the full effect on their lives. I wanted to seek justice for them and those still to come as well, by helping to set a good precedent for future cases. I was “lucky;” my case was being prosecuted. Most sexual assault and rape cases are not. So I felt the responsibility and privilege of that.
- I had no idea whether the Denver case, if it went to trial, would draw the kind of public attention the Arapahoe County case was getting simply by its association with it, and I didn’t know if I was ready for that.
- But if I decided on a plea, would I regret not testifying, not having that voice? And would I regret not forcing him to endure a second trial, not having that as a statement of my experience and my fight? Was negotiating a plea allowing him to take the easy way out? Would I be taking the “easy way out” with a plea? Would that mean I would be perceived as somehow less strong, as just “less” in general? Less worthy? When was it OK to stop fighting?
- Added to all of this, I realized it had become really important to me that I actually experience my attacker serving time for my assault. Maybe it was because I was feeling my mortality because of the assault. Maybe it was because I was simply feeling my age; I was 51 years old then. The Arapahoe case was on a faster track than the Denver case because it had been filed first and the county had him in custody there, making the logistics of getting things done in Denver more complicated. If my case proceeded to trial after the Arapahoe case was done and he had already started serving time for that much-larger-sentence crime, I literally would be dead (as would he, in all likelihood) before my attacker would even start serving the sentence for what he did to me. Would I “feel” justice if I never experienced him sitting in prison for what he did to me? I was worried that I wouldn’t.
On that particular November day, this is where I was at when I e-mailed the prosecutor:
“… As you can tell, a plea offer is the direction I am leaning toward, for a number of different reasons. I like the idea of putting my time toward other things in my life, not to this. Thinking of a trial makes me feel tired now, whereas before it got me fired up. I would totally do it if we needed to in order to get justice. But with him conceding, I feel lucky that perhaps I don’t need to do that. I don’t “need” to keep fighting to win over him. I like the potentially longer sentence [I could perhaps get] without a trial and that he would begin “my” sentence first before the bigger media-attention case that will be the Arapahoe case. I like having the choice to be more anonymous and have a public voice if I choose to, or not. …”
That’s where my head was the next day when John and I took a mental break and drove into the mountains. That’s what was going on in our lives when we finally found our mountain house, my refuge.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of House Therapy.