Voir Dire

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The defendant's attorney has a tight ponytail and high heels. Her client slumps in the Oakland courtroom in an ill-fitting suit. He's accused of sexual assault. The assistant DA has implied that there is no DNA evidence. The victim's testimony, however, is enough to establish fact.

We're part of the jury selection process called "voir dire", a term meaning "to say what's true." We answer questions about our jobs, marital status. Then the judge asks: "Have you ever been a victim of sexual assault?"

"Yes," says the first juror. She was abused as a child. The next woman also has been a victim --groped in the subway. Another dabs her eyes with a tissue, nodding. Yet another answers privately, in chambers. "I work in the system," one prospective juror says. "The case would never have gotten this far if something hadn't happened."

She is dismissed.

"Let's say you're going to buy a house," the defendant's attorney says. "Would you trust the realtor if she merely claimed the foundation was solid?" She stomps her high heeled foot. "No, of course not. You'd need evidence. An inspection report." A few people nod. "You wouldn't just take her word for it."


My stomach hurts. I wouldn't buy a house without an inspection, either. But the whole process feels so skewed against the victim.

The Department of Justice estimates that less than 20% of sexual assaults are even reported. I've been sexually assaulted. I didn't have had the courage to recount the horrible events in a roomful of strangers, while a lawyer tried to poke holes in my story and my character.

The voir dire lasts nearly two days. Of the dozens of potential jurors who are women, all but two have been victims of a sexual assault. What's true is that we have a terrible problem. The accused is most certainly entitled to a fair trial. But raising my right hand and swearing to uphold a system that is so clearly broken breaks my heart.

With a Perspective, I'm Suzanne LaFetra.

Suzanne LaFetra lives in Berkeley and is the director of a documentary film about youth in Oakland.