Judge’s treatment of rape victims draws fire

“About two minutes here, if you don’t gather yourself, I’m about to rip up this guilty plea, and this man in front of you is about to walk. So I would do your very best to gather yourself,” Horton said, according to court transcripts.

Rape cases are often settled without a trial so that the victim can avoid testifying and reliving the ordeal.

But Common Pleas Judge Tim Horton recently ordered two victims to appear in court, in front of their attackers, because he said he wanted to make sure that everyone understood the plea deals that had been worked out by attorneys.

One of the victims, a 13-year-old boy, eventually was allowed to give a written statement through his mother.

But in the other case, a young woman began to break down on the witness stand, and Horton, who has been a judge for three years, scolded her.

“About two minutes here, if you don’t gather yourself, I’m about to rip up this guilty plea, and this man in front of you is about to walk. So I would do your very best to gather yourself,” Horton said, according to court transcripts.

A victims’ advocate is outraged.

And Horton now acknowledges that he wasn’t at his best during those moments.

“I don’t intend to make this a trend,” he said. “I’m still evolving as a judge. (The woman’s case) was a plea I learned a lot from. It was not my finest plea.”

The 19-year-old woman was raped on a pool table with a knife to her throat at a party in Grove City in 2007. She said she thought the arrest of her assailant and a negotiated plea deal would end her trauma.

“My fear was to see him again and have him see me,” she said in an interview this week. “I was scared I would be followed home (from court). I was scared for my family.

“There were so many people in (the courtroom). All the seats were filled up.”

Weeks later, Horton also ordered prosecutors to bring the 13-year-old boy to the courthouse so he could look him in the eye and explain why a relative might spend the rest of his life in prison for repeatedly molesting the boy when he was 9.

In that case, Prosecutor Ron O’Brien filed a motion asking that the victim’s mother be permitted to act as the boy’s representative. She read a statement in court, and Horton was satisfied.

Catherine Harper Lee, executive director of the victims’-advocacy group Justice League of Ohio, commended O’Brien for filing the motion.

“At least this protected the child from further trauma,” she said in a written statement.

But she said she was dismayed by Horton’s actions in both cases. And she called the comments made by Horton to the woman “inexcusable.”

“Let’s forgo consideration of the expertise of the prosecutor and defense counsel and threaten a severely traumatized rape victim that if she doesn’t pull herself together the judge will tear up the guilty plea and set the rapist free,” Harper Lee said. “With that lack of compassion and threat of injustice, it’s no wonder why 70 percent of rape victims don’t report.”

Horton said this week that he was not confident that either victim understood what the plea agreements meant.

“I wasn’t completely satisfied with the resolution,” he said. “The most important thing for me is to try to get it right.

“I understand the state can speak for them, but I wanted to make sure the victim was content with the process.”

The victims didn’t want to face their accusers at trial or at any other time, prosecutors said.

In the first case, David K. Dohmen, 25, agreed to plead guilty to one count of rape, a reduction from the original charges of two counts of rape and one count of gross sexual imposition.

According to a Grove City police report, Dohmen and the woman were not acquainted but ended up alone in a basement at a party in October 2007. The woman said the assault began on a pool table, then she was forced onto a bed underneath a staircase.

“I had to tell my story to doctors and nurses and the police,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell it again.”

Dohmen was charged after a DNA match.

An assistant county prosecutor and Dohmen’s attorney, Stephen Palmer, negotiated a deal in which Dohmen would plead guilty to one count of rape, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. It was his first offense.

The woman told prosecutors that she wanted Dohmen to serve the minimum three-year sentence and to be labeled a sexual predator for life, and both sides made that recommendation to Horton. Though judges often go along with a recommended sentence, they have the authority to refuse or modify it.

Horton said he wanted to hear from the woman herself why she would accept three years when her attacker could have been sent away for 10.

When she arrived on April 30, Assistant County Prosecutor Casey Russo again asked Horton not to force her to appear in court, saying that her office had explained her rights and the repercussions of the plea.

Horton still called the woman to the stand, and she began to break down. That’s when the judge threatened to drop the charges if she didn’t compose herself.

Later, after offering to give the woman a break, he said, “I’m going to take a five-minute recess. If the state doesn’t have this witness together, I’m going to rip up this guilty-plea form, and I’m going to dismiss this case because … I’ve explained to counsel, to the state, on numerous occasions that I’m not going to accept this joint recommendation if in fact the witness is not prepared to make a statement.”

Pushed for an answer about why she wanted a three-year sentence, the woman told Horton, “He’s at least getting somewhat punished or something … I didn’t want to have to talk or anything.”

After Dohmen apologized to the woman in court, Horton imposed a four-year prison term and the sexual-predator label. In the Dispatch interview, the woman said Horton was insensitive.

“I feel bad for anyone that has to deal with him,” she said. ” I don’t think he has any feelings for the victims.”

Horton, who has been a judge for three years, said he has not required a victim to be present in “95 percent of negotiated pleas.”

In the other case, Andre M. Burris, 31, was in Horton’s courtroom June 1 after having agreed to plead guilty to raping a 9-year-old relative. It was his first offense.

Again, Russo was the prosecutor. She and defense attorney Tim Merkle recommended a prison term of 10 years to life for the rape of a minor child, the mandatory sentence for that crime. Horton imposed that sentence after the boy’s mother read a statement in court.

Burris originally was charged with four counts of rape and four counts of gross sexual imposition.

Neither O’Brien nor Russo would discuss either case.

Horton, a Democrat, was elected to the bench in 2006 to fill an unexpired term and re-elected in 2008. He had been an assistant attorney general in employment law and spent six years in private practice, mostly handling civil cases.

Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 4:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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