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On a Mission for Survivors

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When Denise Rotheimer's daughter, Jasmine, was 11 years old, she and her 14-year-old cousin went to a sleepover at their aunt's house. There, their 22-year-old cousin, Michael DeSario, lured them into a game of truth-or-dare, spiked their juice with hard liquor and committed an act of sexual violence against them.

After struggling to find justice in the complicated court system that seemed stacked against them - among other things, it was suggested that Jasmine was partially at fault because she was intoxicated at the time of the attack - Denise founded Mothers On a Mission to Stop Violence, which has passed and continues to pass legislation in Illinois aimed at empowering victims. Denise and Jasmine, now a college student, partnered together, as they often do, to answer our questions about Jasmine's Law, victim's rights and the often uphill battle for victims of sexual violence.

 

 

What legal difficulties did you encounter when trying to prosecute Jasmine's rapist?

Denise Initially, the prosecutor had asked me if I believed in second chances and proposed a 3-year sentence for the rapist. I vehemently refused to allow him a second chance and asked if I could hire an attorney to represent my daughter's interest in this case. The prosecutor said I didn't have that option. However, I later learned that I could have hired an attorney to represent my daughter and me, as we were a named party in the case, at our expense. Unfortunately, I was never made aware of our rights as crime victims until after the case was closed. Additionally, at the time of the incident, providing alcohol to minors was only considered a misdemeanor and not a factor of aggravation, which could have warranted additional time towards the defendant's sentence.

 

What was the eventual ruling in regards to the rape of both Jasmine and her cousin?

Denise On the morning of the sentencing, the defendant's attorney informed me that the prosecutor entered into a plea deal for the minimum six years.  I approached the prosecutor and asked why she offered him the minimum sentence. She replied, 'You're not a lawyer. I don't have to explain the law to you.' In desperation, I asked the bailiff if he could let the judge know I disagreed with the minimum sentence. After the prosecutor delivered her factual basis, the judge asked if I wanted to make a statement. I approached the bench and informed the judge of the legal definition of penetration concerning minors, which the prosecutor had omitted from her factual basis. The prosecutor interjected and cut me off from speaking and said, 'But judge, the victim has issues.' The judge refused to accept the minimum sentence of six years and called a meeting in chambers with the prosecutor and defense attorney. Upon her return, the judge sentenced the rapist to 7-1/2 years. After hearing from the prosecutor in chambers, she told the defendant that the next time a child behaves inappropriately, he needs to step back as an adult and say no. In her plea deal, the prosecutor dropped all charges against the defendant for the second victim.

How does Jasmine's Law address these loopholes?

Denise Jasmine's Law allows judges to double the sentencing on all class felony sex crimes against minors when alcohol is involved, as a factor of aggravation. Since the prosecutor incriminated my daughter for having been under the influence of alcohol at the time she was raped, under Jasmine's Law, rapists will be criminalized for raping children while they are under the influence of alcohol. To prevent rapists from escaping punishment in cases where prosecutors reduce charges in plea deals, we included all five class felony offenses to be covered under Jasmine's Law.

 

Jasmine's Law was passed in 2010 and became effective on January 1, 2011. What was it like for you to see this piece of legislation finally become law?

Jasmine When Jasmine's Law passed, it proved that democracy can work, if the People take a stand.  At MOMSV, we put all we had into this law because we knew this was something that we would not, could not give up on. Jasmine's Law is symbolic of the struggles victims of sexual violence face on a regular basis, both inside and outside the courtroom. This law is one step toward increasing sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders by reflecting the heinousness of their crimes. 

 

What was your experience like working with court advocates?

Denise After Jasmine's rapist was convicted and sentenced, I filed a complaint with the Attorney Registration Disciplinary Committee (ARDC) against the prosecutor for not informing me of my rights. In her response to the ARDC, the prosecutor claimed that I received my rights at the time I met with the child advocate. I contacted the child advocate and asked if he would put in writing that he and I had never met. During our phone conversation, the advocate acknowledged that we had never met and said he would send me a letter. Two or three weeks later, I called the child advocate and inquired about the status of his letter. The advocate placed me on hold and the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center came on the line and introduced herself. She then informed me that the center does not send out correspondence and that they are a cooperative of the State's Attorneys Office. Without the letter, I could not prove that the advocate and I had never met. Therefore, I had no proof to show the ARDC that my daughter and I had never received our rights.

 

All of this led to you creating the Survivor Rights Act. What does it seek to do?

Denise I created the Survivor Rights Act to amend the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act (RCVWA) to designate law enforcement officers as first responders and provide victims with information of their rights and compensation at the initial contact with the criminal justice system, as well as furnish crime victims with a sign-off sheet upon receipt of this information. A sign-off sheet will remove the burden on victims to prove that they did not receive their rights. Secondly, the Act will restore a victim's 14th amendment right to due process of law and allow victims the right to appellate relief. Currently, the (RCVWA) denies victims appellate relief, and a cause of action to seek damages and attorney's fees. Initially, the SRA proposed to establish a Crime Victims' Rights Compliance Officer who would mediate, investigate and initiate disciplinary action against criminal justice authorities who willfully and wantonly violated victims' rights to prevent victims from becoming further victimized by the system. State Representative Rita Mayfield [the sponsor of HB 1237], and I will pursue future legislation to implement a compliance office and provide crime victims with pro bono legal representation.

 

Who else has been instrumental in creating this legislation?

Denise Representative Mayfield, State Senator Michael Noland, the Illinois Association Chiefs of Police, Department of Human Services, Sheriff's Association and the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's Association have all been instrumental in creating this legislation.

 

Where does the SRA stand today?

Denise To help pass HB 1237, Illinois constituents can sign a petition online at /www.momsv.org that will be sent directly to each member of the 97th General Assembly.

 

 

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about how victims of sexual violence are treated by the justice system? 

Jasmine As a crime victim, I was unaware that victims of sexual violence are at risk of becoming further victimized by a system that is supposed to protect them, due to the fact that victims go through the criminal justice system without legal representation because we are not a named party in the case. Not only did I have to fight against a prosecutor whose agenda was merely to obtain a conviction (and win her case) without seeking justice, I continue to challenge the laws that afforded my offender with all the benefits and protections of our Constitution that I was denied. Unfortunately, the criminal justice authorities thrive on a victim's vulnerability and the public's lack of awareness into this issue - the issue being our flawed justice system that gives pedophiles a slap on the wrist for raping children. The truth is ugly, but it is something we must face if we are to change the direction of our justice system. If we succeed in protecting the most vulnerable among us, then we will have fulfilled our mission. 

 

Some answers have been shortened for clarity. This interview is part of an interview series for Sexual Assault Awarness Month. Check back on Thursday, April 7 for an interview with Kaethe Morris Hoffer, Legal Director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

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