In light of the incredibly light sentence handed down this week in the case of a Baltimore County police officer who sexually assaulted three women, TurnAround, Inc. and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (“MCASA”) once again want to clearly state that we stand with survivors. We see you, we hear you, we believe you.
Officer Anthony Westerman faced a sentence of up to 50 years when convicted in August of multiple sexual assaults against three victims. Instead, a judge rescinded one conviction and sentenced Westerman to 15 years - 11 of those suspended and 4 on home detention. Westerman will serve no immediate time in jail for his crimes. The judge described one of the assaults as nothing more than a “boorish act” and found, based on the evidence produced that “there was no evidence of any psychological injury to the victim.” Rape causes psychological harm. The law should be changed to reflect that a survivor’s word is enough to prove psychological injury.
According to RAINN, “Psychological injury is a cognitive or emotional symptom that impacts on a person's life, affecting how they think, feel, and behave. Also known as mental injury, psychological injuries include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.” The impact of trauma may not surface immediately, as victims are often in survival mode and attempt to minimize the experience to get through daily life. TurnAround’s Clinical Director, Roxanne Melgar, LCSW-C notes that “if this judge is basing this on how the survivors appeared in court or because they didn’t go to therapy, he obviously doesn’t understand trauma. Imagine sitting in the court room with the perpetrator in front of you and having to prove that you are telling the truth as well as having to prove that it impacted you. Most likely, you will shut down to not feel all the fear and panic from seeing the perpetrator again, possibly dissociating to cope with the flood of emotions/memories as well as possibly experiencing flashbacks.”
It is time for us to ask serious questions of ourselves and of the systems which are supposed to protect us. Why do we insist on placing such a high burden on the victims in these cases? Why do we need to know if and how their mental and physical health is affected in order to assess that what happened to them was wrong and a crime? Every light sentence like this one says to the survivor - this is not a big deal. Ultimately, this entrenched blame-the-victim mentality causes immense harm to all survivors and perpetuates a lack of trust in the justice system.
Similarly, in the recent case that garnered national attention of a former NFL player violently attacking the mother of his child, the player was arrested, but quickly posted the $10,000 bond. There are thousands of people sitting in jail right now for minor offenses because they can’t afford to post bail, yet a brutal physical assault on an ex-partner warrants a comparatively easy amount for a pro sports player to post. In both incidents, the system has functioned to protect men with societal and political power. At TurnAround and MCASA, we will continue to fight to ensure that all survivors have fair access to and treatment by our legal system.
We stand with the victims and survivors in these cases, and all those who are grappling with sexual violence and intimate partner abuse across our community. If you or someone you know needs support, help is available. Survivors in Baltimore can call TurnAround’s 24/7 helpline at (443) 279-0379 or text (410) 498-5956 for advocacy and counseling services. To find your local rape crisis center, visit MCASA’s website or call 211 to be connected with local resources. You can call MCASA's Sexual Assault Legal Institute for legal support: 301-565-2277, or toll-free 877-496-SALI.