The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law
THE GUILT PROJECT by Vanessa Place is a book that should be read by many, but sadly will be read by very few. A criminal appellate attorney from Los Angeles, Place devotes substantial portions of her practice to the representation of indigents accused of sex offenses or designated as sexually violent offenders. >From that experience she has gained great insight about the lawyers, judges, legislators, professionals, and last but not least, the offenders who occupy this parcel of the criminal and quasi-criminal legal system. THE GUILT PROJECT paints a disquieting portrait of the law and statutes relating to sex offenders. Those who toil in this field can benefit from her observations.
The author is not idealistic. She recognizes that most of her clients are not only legally guilty by virtue of their convictions, they also are factually guilty. The question most often asked of criminal defense lawyers is “How can you defend people like that?” This is a question without an answer, unless one recognizes that vigorous representation of the guilty ultimately results in protecting the innocent. It is a question and answer often ignored in America, where crime and criminals are a means of entertainment, and the difficult policy questions raised in the criminal justice system are pushed aside.
Sex offenses always have occupied a unique position in Anglo-American jurisprudence. It is only of recent vintage that a man could be convicted of sexually assaulting his wife. Sex offenses against children were rarely prosecuted, absent a confession by the offender, because kids were often unable to testify in court against the accused. The rules are now relaxed to allow out-of-court statements of children to be received into evidence. While this development has resulted in more convictions, it has on occasion led to injustice when innocent defendants are convicted based on emotion rather than evidence.
Scientific developments such as DNA have also changed the rules of the game. As Place documents, DNA has both uses and abuses. Oftentimes the science overly impresses juries. On other occasions, attorneys who aren’t trained in science are unable to properly attack DNA testimony. Ironically, DNA has had the unintended consequence of occasionally freeing the convicted. The bottom line is that DNA has substantially changed the prosecution and defense of sex crimes.
The most disquieting portion of THE GUILT PROJECT documents what has become the lifetime incarceration of certain sex offenders through legislation deeming them sexually violent. That term has an expansive definition encompassing far more than truly violent offenders. The civil commitment process places great discretion in psychologists and psychiatrists. In a civil proceeding, the opinion of one so-called expert can keep an individual incarcerated for life. Sex offender registration and legislation limiting where released offenders may live are also problematic and, in Place’s opinion, counter-productive.
THE GUILT PROJECT recognizes that law and morality also have changed the aspects of certain sex offenses. Statutory rape laws often established that children of a certain age could not grant consent to sexual activity. But society has changed over the years while the age of consent has not. Many laws should be reevaluated in light of the morality of the 21st century.
Vanessa Place is not a “bleeding heart” liberal. This is not a book that suggests we should not prosecute sex offenders to the fullest extent of the law. Instead, she vigorously argues for the recognition that in prosecuting sex offenders we have lost sight of fundamental concepts of justice. When we behave in that manner, we are less of a nation and our constitutional values are weakened.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 22, 2011