Rabbi Avremi Zippel had hardened himself when he took the stand to testify how his nanny had sexually abused him for a decade of his childhood.
He expected her defense attorney to call him a liar and accuse him of being an attention seeker who wanted to be a #MeToo celebrity at the height of the movement when people shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment.
But what actually happened is worse. Alavina Florreich’s lawyer had tried to keep the abuse on Zippel – on the grounds that he was the sexual assailant.
The abuse started when he was 8 years old and continued until he was 18.
The allegation is traumatic, said Zippel, because most young victims like him spend their childhood blaming themselves for the abuse they have suffered. It was only through subsequent therapy that he could understand that he had fallen victim to an adult he trusted.
“I was prepared to be brutal,” he said. “Tell me I’m a liar. Tell me I made it up Tell me I did it for media attention. Tell me I did it for some reason and put holes in my memories. Fair play. But don’t hurt me. Do not use the justice system to literally repeat this cycle of abuse. “
A year has passed since this process ended. The jury sentenced Florreich for seven crimes, and the 71-year-old woman was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison in March.
A jury had believed Zippel and his testimony put his perpetrator behind bars. But the 29-year-old rabbi said he had spent this year with a nagging feeling, mentally repeating the manner in which the defense attorney accused him of chasing his nanny and twisted his words to the police to imply that he abused her.
Defense attorney Chad Steur had squeezed Zippel, accusing him of “pushing the envelope” from the start when he was 8 years old and Florreich ran his hand over her shirt and on her breasts.
“You said you wanted it to happen?” Steur asked during the cross-examination.
“Sometimes yes,” replied Zippel.
“You said, ‘I urged it to happen?’ Asked the lawyer.
“Sometimes”, answered Zippel, “yes.”
The Utah rules forbade Steur to argue in front of a jury that Zippel consented to sexual activity because children cannot legally consent to sexual contact. Instead, the defense attorney implied that Zippel was the attacker and downright accused him of attacking Florreich during an encounter where she was having oral sex with him when he was returning home from school as an 18-year-old and a legal adult.
“He [had been] Counting down the days, ”Steur argued to the jury. “A predator does that.”
The Salt Lake Tribune does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Zippel has agreed to be named.
When Zippel, a rabbi in Chabad Lubavitch, Utah, recently shared these memories and relived the traumatic nature of the words, he feared that aggressive tactics such as those used by defenders might harm other victims or discourage a child sexual abuse survivor, to report.
He said, “We are literally exposing them to the trauma they have been through for so many years.”
He pondered how police officers and prosecutors received special training to ensure they didn’t re-traumatize the victims. Why can’t defenders do the same?
However, implementing this type of change is not straightforward.
State Senator Daniel Thatcher, of R-West Valley City, said he was considering promoting legislation – but decided that change would likely have to be made within the judiciary, not law.
“What happened to Rabbi Zippel was a shame,” said Thatcher. “In this case, it’s not about the outcome of the case. It sends a message to the victims that they can and will be devastated. “
Thatcher said he understands the guilt and weight children carry when they are molested because he was a victim himself. As an 11-year-old, Thatcher said he was cutting a field to get to school when a stranger approached. He said he tried to ask the man if he needed help but the man told him he wanted his clothes and grabbed him. Thatcher screamed, fending off the man, but not before the stranger zipped off his pants. The man was never caught.
Thatcher said that like Zippel, as a child, he had difficulty wondering if what had happened was his fault. Why did he talk to the man? What if he could have run away faster?
“I never talked about it,” he said. “I never got any help. Within six months, I began to suffer from debilitating chronic depression that continues to this day. I struggle with suicidal thoughts and depression. I can’t help but think that if we had known better then, if I had got help then, it would have changed further damage and injuries. “
There has been some discussion between attorneys and attorneys about implementing trauma-based training for defense attorneys, and Monica Diaz, director of the Utah Sentences Commission, said she hopes to create an advanced training course for lawyers that will be available in early 2021.
Steur, the lawyer who interrogated Zippel, declined an interview request and said he could not speak because Florreich is appealing the verdict. In an email he wrote, “A process is a search for the truth, and our controversial system is the mechanism for that determination.”
Steve Burton, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it was a difficult balance because the role of defense lawyers is to zealously represent their client and sometimes it means asking difficult questions. Without this controversial process, he said, the ones who will suffer the most are people who are wrongly accused of the crimes.
He noticed a case he had recently worked on in which a woman had reported that her father had sexually abused her as a child. The father denied the allegations and the case was ultimately dismissed after it became clear that her report was likely wrong. But to get to that point, Burton said he had to ask awkward questions.
“I had to get pretty aggressive about her mental illness problems,” he said. “I had to ask her questions about certain feelings of guilt. I tried to do it respectfully, but these questions had to be answered to show that there were psychological reasons and life experiences that made these allegations much more likely to be false. “
Burton said housing is already available for alleged victims in the courtroom, such as pre-trial hearings to set limits on what can be discussed in front of a jury and what is prohibited. Prosecutors and judges are usually very protective of victims, he said, but acknowledged that some of these safeguards could have been better used in Zippel’s case.
The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers isn’t opposed to additional awareness training, Burton said, as it will not only help lawyers deal with victims on the witness stand, but it could also help them be better lawyers for their clients if they better understand this Trauma. Making such training compulsory could prove problematic, he said, as any licensed attorney can represent someone in a criminal case, even if it isn’t the attorney’s main practice.
“When society perceives someone as a victim, they are extremely protective of that person,” he said. “From a defense attorney’s point of view, you don’t want to appear to a judge or jury to be abusive. [Learning] I think it’s great to ask appropriate or less traumatic questions. And this training can have some benefit, especially if it involves knowing the true signs of trauma and the fake signs of trauma. “
Zippel said he believes some changes are needed so victims can be sure they will not be further traumatized when reporting these types of crimes. At his trial, two teenagers he knew came to the courthouse to see if they were ready to report their own perpetrators to the police. After seeing how Zippel was treated on the witness stand, they left in horror.
“It really bothered me that we have a system that allows that,” said Zippel. “It bothered me that the children want to come forward and know that they are waiting for them at the other end. That could silence them again. “