Column: A rape survivor gets her day in court. It’s one I’ll never forget
Cathie L. was understandably emotional as she addressed the court.
Dressed in black leggings and a loose black shirt, with her long gray hair pulled into a fashionably messy bun atop her head, she wept while cataloging the many ways the rape had changed her.
Almost four years ago, just before daybreak, Cathie was awakened in her Santa Monica bedroom by a stranger holding a knife.
High on meth, Dylan James Jensen, then 41, had crawled onto Cathie’s elevated balcony, removed her screen door and lifted off its track her sliding glass door, secured by a bolt that only opened six inches. After he stabbed her mattress, she asked him to put down the knife. Fearing for her life, she told him she would not resist.
For the next hour, Dylan James Jensen assaulted Cathie L., then 66. A devout Buddhist, she repeated the traditional chant “nam myoho renge kyo” to keep herself calm while he violated her.
After a trial that spanned eight months due to COVID-related delays, a jury found Jensen guilty of seven felonies, including rape, sodomy and sexual battery. It also rejected his claim that he was insane at the time of the crime.
On Friday, on the eighth floor of Los Angeles Superior Court’s Airport Courthouse, it was Cathie’s turn to explain how the assault has changed her life. Her victim impact statement was a crushing testament to the cascading damage that flows from one act of sexual violence.
“I’m glad to be able to finally let you know how the rapist’s attack turned my life into a nightmare, both emotionally and physically,” Cathie told the court, as prosecutors Jenna Franklin and Jeffrey Megee flanked her for support.
Because Jensen had demanded a trial as the pandemic was peaking, she said, she became a recluse. “I was so afraid that I’d not only get it, but that I’d die from it before I could testify because I am high risk,” said Cathie, who will turn 70 Friday.
“Because of this rape, I suffer from PTSD,” she said. “I live in fear, paranoia, a constant state of overwhelm, have a hard time focusing on anything, have high anxiety, worry about everything, and I am easily triggered to this day.”
When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the Oscars, she said, she was stunned that “it felt like it was happening to me. PTSD is awful!”
In the days after Jensen attacked her, she said, she was plagued by the image of him pointing the knife at her face. And she paid a hypnotherapist $700 to help rid her of that terrifying image. She sleeps three or four hours a night. She gained 70 pounds. She developed asthma and eczema, is struggling to keep her blood pressure under control and constantly wakes up feeling like her heart is beating its way out of her chest. She has night terrors and sleeps with the lights on.
“When I get up each day, I peek around my living room blinds, where the rapist broke in, to be sure that no one is trying to hide on my balcony,” she said.
One hard lesson from two years of COVID? The public spiritedness we naively believed to be an American virtue was nothing more than a myth.
She quickly brushes her teeth, washes dishes and takes showers because when the water is running, she imagines all sorts of terrifying noises in her apartment.
“During the day,” she said, “I have waking nightmares where I sense someone is in my apartment. I imagine seeing dangerous men out of the corner of my eye and sometimes can actually feel them standing near me, and I’m crippled with fear.”
She said she uses twice as much electricity as her neighbors, and rues that she will never again have a romantic relationship because “I’m too terrified to trust any man ever again.”
She lost her job as a legal secretary, she told the court, because her colleagues “told me they were sick of my PTSD.... They wanted me to be the sunshiny girl I’d been pre-rape.”
Losing her job meant taking Social Security benefits three years earlier than she’d planned. In the wake of lost income, she declared bankruptcy and gave up her car.
By this time in the courtroom, there was so much sniffling that the bailiff handed out tissues.
“She literally went through everyone’s worst nightmare,” said prosecutor Franklin, who also wiped away tears.
Moments later, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Verastegui sentenced Jensen to four consecutive life terms. He will be eligible for parole in 100 years.
“The court is in awe of your strength and courage,” Verastegui told Cathie and apologized for the arduous process. “Having to suffer an eight-month trial, I can’t even imagine the anxiety that caused.”
We’re holding our collective breath after a despot halfway around the world announces his nuclear forces are on high alert.
If there is any silver lining here, it is that Cathie had access to many resources and was never treated with anything other than respect, a far cry from the way rape survivors have been treated in years past.
From her first contact with the 911 operator and after, Cathie told me, “everyone has been angels on Earth.”
The detectives who handled her case — both women, by the way — were respectful and kind. The Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center offered comprehensive medical and emotional support. She was invited to participate in group therapy for rape survivors there and was astonished by the shame victims felt.
“All were more than traumatized by their rapes, however many years ago,” she told me. “They were ashamed and embarrassed, and they felt somehow they made it happen. I don’t.”
I doubt we will ever fully transcend the urge to blame victims, but attitudes toward sexual violence have changed drastically in the last few decades. Cathie’s willingness to tell the truth about her lasting trauma can only help. She even posted an invitation to the sentencing on the social media site Next Door.
And yet, there were a couple of moments during Jensen’s rape trial, one juror told me, that were right out of our victim-blaming past.
“I was shocked by some of the questioning,” said juror Cathy Andrade, a Cal State Dominguez Hills nursing educator who had returned to court for the sentencing. “The public defender asked, did her balcony perhaps look like a woman lived there? Was there a bikini or a negligee hanging to dry? I thought in this day and age that kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.”
Of course it shouldn’t. But old attitudes die hard.
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