Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion
Aspen, CO Colorado
Almost a year-and-a-half after the sexual assault that occurred at the Centennial housing complex, Emanuel Gonzalez-Loujun pleaded guilty to attempted sexual assault, for which he was sentenced to six years in prison to be served concurrently with a sentence of 14 years for the intent to distribute cocaine charge.
So now that this ordeal has ended, many are asking: “Is this outcome fair?” “Was justice served?” The answer to that question is by no means simple, as it carries with it questions about the efficacy of our criminal justice system, as well as more fundamental questions as to our notions of retribution, punishment, accountability and healing.
Was it better to reach a plea bargain with a definitive guilty plea, albeit to a much lesser charge than the original, and avoid the time, expense, trauma, and uncertainty of a trial for the district attorney’s office and the victim? Or would it have been better to “roll the dice” with a retrial in the hopes of obtaining a conviction with a lengthier sentence? No one has a crystal ball and even if we did, I believe that there would never be a right and wrong answer. The truth is, for better or worse, this is how our criminal justice system works. Obviously, there are pros and cons to each path, and those that should get to decide are those for whom the decision has the most impact, namely the victim and the DA’s office.
Although I can understand the benefits of avoiding a retrial, I am disheartened by the length of Mr. Gonzalez-Loujun’s sentence as a result of the offered plea bargain. As the district attorney’s office stated, a guilty plea to a sexual assault charge is on some levels a victory. Yet to allow a perpetrator of oral, vaginal, and anal rape to admit only that he “attempted” to assault a victim is a Pyrrhic victory indeed that in essence minimizes the egregious nature of Mr. Gonzalez-Loujun’s crime.
Another element that I find ironic is that Mr. Gonzalez-Loujun’s sentence for the charge related to the illegal distribution of drugs is more than twice the length of the sentence for the attempted sexual assault charge. I am by no means suggesting that we as a society be tolerant of those who deal drugs; but rather I am asking, why are we so tolerant of sexual predators? A victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault has no choice in the crime that is perpetrated against them. This is in stark contrast to those who willingly purchase illegal drugs from a dealer, or an individual who makes a conscious choice to make their living selling drugs, or a rapist who decides to rape.
The methods used by the public defenders in this trial also clearly highlight the biases that we as a society hold toward rape victims. Why in most sexual assault trials do we ask, “Why did the victim dress that way, walk alone late at night, drink that much, go back to his apartment, provoke the assault, etc.,” rather than simply asking, “Why did the perpetrator rape her?” Until this fundamental pattern shifts and a true understanding of sexual autonomy and consent exists, there will always be “he said, she said” sexual assaults, and unfortunately most of them will never be reported, let alone end in convictions of guilt.
The fact that the public defenders were able to successfully introduce the concept of consent as a legitimate defense in the first trial suggests that we as a community do not fully understand the complex notions of force, coercion and duress. In a majority of sexual assaults, whether they ever result in prosecution, the lack of verbal or physical resistance does not imply or equate to consent. Rather, this pattern often typifies a form of submission due only to the use of force, the threat of force, or inequities in power, as was a factor in this particular sexual assault.
Although a longer prison sentence would have created a greater sense of justice, the truth of the matter is that no amount of time in jail can ever repay a victim of sexual assault for their suffering or serve to make reparations for the violation of body, mind, and spirit that occurs from a sexual assault. I often advise those that I work with that there is no correct path of healing from a crime of violence; it looks different for every individual. However, what I have found to be a universal truth is that there is a benefit for those victims who are able to distinguish what they have control over and what they don’t have control over. Unfortunately, the crime itself, what a jury believes, what the attorneys do and say, and a judge’s rulings, all fall into the category of what a victim cannot control. What they can control is how they decide to move forward through the process, and whether they assimilate and incorporate the tragic event into their life in a positive manner or whether they continue to let the violation keep them in a place of post-traumatic stress and suffering.
Clearly, the young woman affected by Mr. Gonzalez-Loujun’s actions has traveled far on her path of healing. I believe that unknowingly she has touched many in our community through her strength, dignity and resolve. Here is an individual who, despite all of the attempts to make this trial a question about her character and to strip away her support system and her rights as a victim, was not afraid to go through the ordeal not only once, but twice, in her pursuit of truth and justice. Although the second trial will never come to fruition, the fact that she was willing to participate sends a message to all of us that although someone can take away your basic right to choose whether and when to be sexually intimate with another person, they can’t take away your voice and your courage.