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When Abusers Are Given the Benefit of the Doubt

In criminal cases, if a defendant is found guilty of a crime, they are given an opportunity to present evidence before the judge at sentencing. This often comes in the form of letters of support or testimony from friends, family or colleagues. It is an integral part of our criminal justice system, and one that gives defendants an opportunity to present mitigating factors in their case. During this phase, victims also have the opportunity to present an impact statement that talks about how the crime has affected their lives.

Too often, this opportunity is used by defendants in domestic violence and sexual assault cases to avoid responsibility for their actions. All too frequently, judges in these cases hear this type of evidence and give these convicted abusers a light sentence for any number of reasons.

Such was the case in Tennessee, when a former pastor, David Lynn Richards, Jr., was convicted on 9 felony counts of raping and sexually abusing his adopted daughter over a period of 2 years. Prosecutors sought the maximum term of 72 years, yet the judge — swayed by testimony from the defendants’ family and friends, as well as his work as a pastor — handed down a sentence of just 12 years. Richards will be eligible for parole after just 9 years. At sentencing, Richards continued to maintain his innocence, claiming that he did not know why he was there and stating that he believed that the system had made a mistake.

This case is not the first time that a rapist or domestic abuser received a light jail sentence for a heinous crime based on the defendant’s character, future potential or history. These decisions often ignore the very fact of the crime the defendant has been convicted of, focusing instead on how the defendant is an upstanding member of the community, how they have a bright future, or how they run a successful business. The Brock Turner case is a prime example of such a sentence. There, the judge gave Turner — convicted of sexual assault — a 6 month sentence. In part, he based his sentence on the fact that sending Turner to prison would have a “severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on him.

These sentences are notable in that they center on the impact the sentence will have on the abuser and their lives, while almost entirely ignoring the effect of the crime on the victim’s life. Sexual and domestic violence can cause both short and long-term effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse, chronic fatigue, and other issues. By focusing on how a prison sentence will affect an abuser, judges ignore how the abuser’s own choices have caused trauma to the victim.

Similarly, when judges decide that an abuser doesn’t deserve a long sentence because they are a good Christian, they have support from friends and family, or because they have always been an upstanding member of the community, they are ignoring the realities of abuse. Many abusers hide in plain sight, and may be pillars of the community who volunteer, coach sports, lead ministries, or do other good works. That does not make their crimes any less reprehensible, or make them any less deserving of a lengthy prison sentence. It also does not lessen the victim’s trauma.

We can all play a role in ending the type of culture that allows this type of sentence to be handed down in rape and domestic violence cases. You can start by never engaging in victim-blaming, supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence, and demanding accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes. Speak out when you hear others excuse this type of violence — and advocate for the right of everyone to live free from all types of violence.

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