She was 14 when her neighbor raped her the first time. That same year, he did it again.
4 years later, he raped her yet again.
He commanded her to tell no one, threatening her family if she did.
Years later, this man – Austin Smith Clem – was arrested, tried, and convicted of one count of first-degree rape and two counts of second-degree rape.
But justice has not been served. Instead of rightfully sending this rapist to prison, the judge juggled with the law so that the sentence effectively amounted to probation and a short stay in community corrections – an “education” program for non-violent offenders.
His victim – Courtney Andrews – isn’t staying silent about the outrage of this sentence. She spoke with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC this past Sunday about why she’s coming forward and telling her story. She bravely shares: “I figured if it happened to me, it was happening to other people.”
What’s even more shocking (is that possible?) is the argument made by the defense, characterizing her as a “scorned woman” and claiming that Clem is actually going to have a very controlled life for the next six years. The defense argues that: “If he goes to a party and they’re serving beer, he can’t say, ‘Can I have one?’ If he wanted to go across the Tennessee line, which as the crow flies is eight or nine miles from his house, and buy a lottery ticket, he can’t do that…It’s not a slap on the wrist.”
Actually … that’s exactly what it is.
But it’s even more than that. It’s a message.
It’s a message to this rapist that his crime was not serious and does not warrant real punishment. It’s a message to his victim – a brave young woman who has come forward to tell her story – that this violation of her body was not a big deal. It’s a message to society that we do not take rape seriously, that we do not care about the lives and health and well-being of women or girls.
So really, this sentence isn’t even just a message. It’s also permission. It’s permission to men in positions of power to abuse and violate young girls however and whenever they wish – even if they are arrested, charged, and convicted (in and of themselves, very unlikely), they need not face real punishment for their crimes.
Sadly, this won’t be out of the ordinary. 97 out of every 100 rapists will receive no punishment for their crimes. We know that sexual assault and abuse – particularly of women and girls – is rampant in our society. As a culture, we claim that this violation will not be tolerated, and yet one has to wonder how it is that justice is so often avoided. Just yesterday, a police officer in Texas was arrested for raping a 19 year old woman during a traffic stop. Despite the arrest, news accounts report that there were other, previous complaints made against this officer, but the warning signs were ignored. If he is convicted of his crimes, will his sentence, too, be adjusted to just a fine and a few years of community service?
Limestone County Circuit Judge James Woodroof has set a dangerous precedent with this ruling – one that we cannot allow to stand. Violence against women is too rampant, the crimes too heinous, to let this rapist walk free and clear.
Across the country, the stories of rape victims are coming to light. Horrifying attacks in Steubenville and Maryville are awakening a collective conscience in America: that these young girls deserve justice. Rape is, by its nature, a violent crime, and the rape of a child is a violation of absolutely everything we value as a community.
An Alabama District Attorney has filed a motion demanding that Judge James Woodruff vacate his sentence and send this rapist to prison where he belongs.
The judge may have sent a message to the rapist, to the victim, and to our society. But we’ve got a message for him, too: Neither you nor the rapist will get away with this. We’re here to make sure of it.
At the close of her show, Melissa Harris-Perry asked Courtney, “what do you need to feel safe again?” Courtney responded: “For Austin Clem to be in jail.”
Take action now to ensure Courtney doesn’t need to fear this man coming back to rape her for a 4th time.
Photo Credit: Melissa Harris-Perry Show, MSNBC, November 26, 2013.