2017 Year in Review: Sexual assault in Summit County
Editor’s note: The Summit Daily is counting down the top stories of 2017.
The revolution came swiftly this year. Several of the dominoes had already fallen — Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly — but the shocking allegations of sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein in October opened the floodgates.
The pace and scope of the revelations that followed were bewildering, revealing men of power and repute from nearly every corner of society as lecherous, misogynistic or outright predatory.
Allegations that were once only whispered roared to the surface, bringing down leading men from the halls of Congress to the corner offices of media giants in a maelstrom of social media justice dubbed the #MeToo moment.
No revolution is without excesses, and some commentators were uneasy about social media juries and boardroom executioners. But if judgment in the Me Too moment was swift, in the courts it has long been grindingly slow, often paid for with humiliation and re-traumatization by accusers.
The court of public opinion moves at light speed compared to its counterpart in the criminal justice system. But this year in Summit County, two sexual assault cases went to trial, each at least more than a year after the alleged crimes occurred.
Both cases were similar, involving women who were too intoxicated to remember the night’s events and men who claimed they had no way of knowing the sex wasn’t consensual.
They ended very differently, one with a hung jury and another with a class-two felony conviction, demonstrating both the salience and limits of an emerging criminal justice paradigm that doesn’t always see a victim’s blackout as a mulligan for the accused.
The case against Charles Rochon, a former Copper Mountain Resort employee accused of unlawful sexual contact with a blacked out woman in 2014, deadlocked in May, and the District Attorney’s Office later dropped the case.
Prosecutors alleged that he took a woman into his room in an employee housing complex when she was blackout drunk, vomiting and unaware of where she was. When she came to, she said, Rochon was raping her. At trial, Rochon’s attorneys argued their client had no way knowing the woman wasn’t consenting because she never said “no.”
That’s a traditional definition of consent, which some argue is outdated. A more nuanced idea of consent, which has gained particular traction on college campuses but not necessarily the courts, holds that men are obligated to assess whether or not a person is too impaired to consent to sex.
That notion was central to the October trial of Paul Dee Garvin, who along with three other men was accused of raping a blacked out woman in Silverthorne on St. Patrick’s Day night in 2016.
Far less evidence was presented during Rochon’s trial, and unlike Garvin’s, there was no video of the encounter. Both trials, however, asked juries to parse the nature of consent through a haze of alcohol-induced memory lapses.
Garvin, the only one of the men to be tried so far, claimed that the woman initiated and encouraged the encounter after a late night of drinking. While the woman couldn’t remember much, she insisted she would not have consented to what happened, which left her with graphic injuries documented during a forensic exam the next day.
The trial, which lasted more than a week, largely turned on whether or not the woman was capable of appraising the nature of her conduct, one of several legal definitions for sexual assault. Garvin’s defense argued that he was innocent because he didn’t know the woman was blacked out.
A key moment at trial likely came during Garvin’s cross-examination, when District Attorney Bruce Brown asked him if he thought the woman sounded like she had her wits about her during the encounter. Garvin said she did.
Brown then played audio of the woman talking in one of four cellphone videos that provided key evidence in the case. (The videos, recorded by another defendant during the encounter, were only shown to the jury.)
Brown again asked Garvin, incredulous, if she sounded like a woman who was thinking clearly. Garvin insisted she did, but the jurors were presumably not convinced. After six hours of deliberation, they convicted him of class-two felony sexual assault, an extremely serious crime that could carry 16 to 48 years to life in prison at sentencing in January.
Another man, Christopher Jay Gann, will face trial in February for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman while she was blacked out in his car. That incident, which was unrelated, occurred in January.
If the public naming and shaming of alleged sexual deviants is society’s novel, disruptive way of adjudicating misconduct, though, the courts shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as lumbering dinosaurs.
For one thing, a prison sentence is far weightier than a firing and banishment from public life, and that carries a much heavier deliberative burden — not to mention the constitutional rights of the accused.
And while men like Weinstein were able to use their wealth and power to game cops and courts for years, it would be inaccurate to say the criminal justice system hasn’t adapted at all to changing mores about sexual violence.
During closing arguments in Garvin’s trial, Brown told the jury that just a few decades ago, police probably wouldn’t have even investigated the case, instead blaming the woman for what happened.
“You are the conscience of this community in 2017 and you have recognized that the law has changed and people’s conception of what constitutes sexual assault has changed,” Brown said to the jury.
The accused men and their attorneys, of course, disagree with the DA’s interpretation, echoing the concerns of some who say that “criminalizing bad sex” tips the scales too far.
In the sexual assault trials of 2018, it will be up to jurors to decide which interpretation prevails in Summit County. And while they will only be asked to consider the facts of each case, the echoes of Me Too are likely to be fresh in their minds.
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