Reading the work of those writing from a different perspective has been productive to the development of my own thinking. Abbe Smith’s forthcoming article, Representing Rapists: The Cruelty of Cross Examination and Other Challenges for a Feminist Criminal Defense Lawyer, is no exception. Like her other scholarship, Representing Rapists is impeccably written, thoughtful, and well reasoned. What makes this work exceptional is its brutal honesty. With its steadfast transparency and willing self-reflection, the article is downright brave.
Abbe Smith, a well known legal ethicist and criminal lawyer, has committed much of her professional attention to theorizing and defending the need for unmitigated zeal in the representation of the criminally accused – including, of course, those accused of sexual offences. With a view to better protecting sexual assault complainants, I have dedicated a lot of scholarly attention in the last few years to developing feminist arguments in support of the ethical limits on defence lawyers who represent clients accused of sexual offences. Where our perspectives likely differ most is with respect to the cross-examination of sexual assault complainants.
However, as Smith states clearly in her opening paragraphs, Representing Rapists is not an articulation of the procedural, ethical, and constitutional justifications for the no-holds-barred cross-examination of the truthful complainant. Instead, this article discusses “how it actually feels to confront and cross-examine” truthful sexual assault complainants, and “how to come to terms with these feelings”. It is an admirable attempt to develop a feminist defense ethos, pursued through open self-reflection and a willingness to engage seriously with the trauma caused to survivors not only by sexual violence but by the judicial system and criminal defence lawyers.
The article proceeds through five parts. In the first part, Smith highlights the broader context for the defence of those accused of rape and other sexual offences. For her, the broader context relates back to her justification for criminal defence work more generally. The United States is one of the most punitive countries in the world. And of course, its carceral state is populated predominantly by poor, racialized, or otherwise vulnerable people. As a result, for the criminal defender, “the stakes are higher, the urgency greater, the feeling of lawyerly responsibility more intense.”
Part II of the article considers the experience of women and children who have been sexually assaulted – aspects of both the sexual violence itself and the trial experiences of sexual assault survivors are contemplated. Smith’s method is unique. She examines the experiences of these survivors by immersing herself in, and quoting significantly in the article from, the rape memoirs of several women. The descriptions are raw, unflinching, and at times difficult to read.
Part of what makes Representing Rapists so bold is the way in which, in Parts III and IV, Smith then integrates these women’s experiences with the criminal justice response to their sexual violation into a discussion of some of her experiences representing men accused of rape. She is honest about the way some of her cases made her feel and the dissonance this causes. At one point, she compares herself to one of the women whose memoir she draws upon. The rapist of another reminds her of a man she once represented. Later she sees herself in another woman’s painful description of the lawyer that cross-examined her. The effect is intense.
Smith includes descriptions of the corporeal details from both the memoirs and cases she has taken, details of the pain and loss of self experienced by these women, and descriptions of the connections they make between the intimacy imposed upon them during the rape and the shame this generates. She also describes the shame she has felt after cross-examining a sexual assault complainant, knowing she has only added to theirs.
And she accepts responsibility: “Defence lawyers do not get to apologize – no matter how much we may want to….Victims of serious crime get to hate us. It is the least we can do for them.”
Smith’s analysis is nuanced. While she attempts, in Part V, to reduce the “dissonance of rape defence” experienced by feminist lawyers, she does not shy away from the tensions she is unable to reconcile. She is ever-cognizant of the humanity of her clients, including those who have committed heinous acts, and unapologetic in her commitment to her conception of justice.
Of the many things that I love about this piece, one is that it pushes me – it challenges me – to be as honest and as nuanced as I can in my own scholarship.
I do not agree with some of the defence counsel strategies Abbe Smith supports, nor the justifications she offers for them. But I could not agree more with the concept of feminism she embraces: a feminism that is brave, that attempts honesty and accepts complexity, and that is committed to dignity for all.