Why the Negligence and Victim-Blaming by our Justice System and the Media Cannot Be Forgotten
The ‘Me Too’ movement has swept over our nation the last few years, allowing the hush-hush topic of sexual abuse and the staggering number of women that have experienced it to rise to the surface. Although the movement was momentous, liberating, and continues to impact how we grapple with and fight sexual abuse, it was not the first movement of its kind. In the 1980’s, Cheryl Araujo, and the horrific crime inflicted upon her, was at the center of that movement.
Cheryl Araujo was 21-years-old and a mother of two living in her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. On March 6th, 1983, she decided to stop at a bar, Big Dan’s Tavern, to buy cigarettes. After having a drink with a waitress at a table, Cheryl got up to leave and was grabbed from behind by a man. For two hours that followed, Cheryl was raped on a pool table by four men while other patrons in the bar laughed and cheered. During the trial, one spectator even admitted that he shouted “Go for it! Go for it” as she was being raped. Cheryl was able to escape, running into the street half naked and eventually being picked up by a car she flagged down. Four men, including John Cordeiro, Victor Raposo. Daniel Silva, and Joseph Vieira were charged with raping Cheryl, while two other men, Jose Medeiros, and Virgilio Medeiros, were charged as accessories to the rape for failing to intervene.
The trial of the six men was the first rape case to be televised nationally and garnished significant attention. For nearly a month, the trial took place before live television cameras and viewers were able to hear every detail of the tragic assault. Although the Judge did not allow cameras to film Cheryl, he failed to consider the importance of concealing her personal information. As a result, both her name and address were broadcast to the nation when she took the stand to testify. She was ruthlessly cross-examined six times by defense attorneys who attacked every part of her character and life, asserting she actually consented and was even asking for it. They vilified her, ultimately blaming her for her own assault and acting as if she was the monster for potentially ruining the lives of the six men on trial. Defense lawyer Edwardven went so far as to ask her, “[i]f you’re living with a man, what are you doing running around the streets getting raped?” The four defendants charged with aggravated rape were found guilty and sentenced to 6-12 years in prison, while the two other men who were charged as accessories were acquitted.
The case was highly sensationalized and known internationally for multiple reasons. For one, it sparked a debate regarding what information about victims should be released to the public and if criminal trials should be televised at all. Debate centered around victim-blaming also took place, resulting in contrasting viewpoints about what does and doesn’t constitute consent. Furthermore, it created immense tension in community of New Bedford, as the majority of the community was of Portuguese descent, including the four charged assailants. The Portuguese community felt the case caused anti-immigrant sentiment and ethnic discrimination, causing their community as a whole to take the blame for the atrocious crime. The media “took on xenophobic undertones”, with Hustler magazine featuring a fake postcard with a naked woman on a pool table with the caption “Greetings from New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Portuguese Gang-Rape Capital of America.” As a result of these issues, thousands took the street to protest. Rallies in New Bedford by the Portuguese to fight against the racial slurs and discriminatory beliefs that were targeting their community somehow morphed into protests supporting the assailants and vilifying the victim as the cause of her own exploitation. Petitions even circulated requesting leniency for the convicted men and featured over 16,000 signatures . Cheryl was forced to watch the community she grew up in not only fail to protect her, but dehumanize, verbally threaten, and further victimize her. Fearing for her life and her children’s lives, Cheryl moved to Miami to escape the never-ending harassment. Just two years after the trial, Cheryl died after she crashed her car into a tree. Alcohol was determined to be the cause of the crash, with her boyfriend stating that Cheryl had battled alcoholism in the years following the rape and had been in rehab for the six months before her death.
Are there Laws in Florida to Protect the Identity of Rape Victims?
The conflict between the privacy rights of individuals and freedom of press is one that is historically rooted and one that is unlikely to ever be solved by a broad principle. The United States Supreme Court “adamantly, and perhaps wisely, declines to decide whether either doctrine is strong enough to prevail over the other.” As a result of Cheryl’s case, some states took it upon themselves to pass legislation to protect the identities of victims of rape. However, the Florida legislature had “answered the victim-identity question in favor of privacy by criminalizing the publication of rape victims’ names” at the beginning of the twentieth century. This law has remained in the Florida Statutes, most recently codified in Section 794.03, and states:
“No person shall print, publish, broadcast, or cause or allow to be printed, published, or broadcast, in any instrument of mass communication the name, address or other identifying fact or information of the victim of any sexual offense within this chapter, except as provided in s. 119.07(2)(h) or unless the court determines that such information is no longer confidential and exempt pursuant to s. 92.56. Any offense under this section shall constitute a misdemeanor of the second degree provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
How Cheryl’s Story Connects to the Victim-Centered Approach
Although the names of rape victims are unlikely to be broadcast nationally today, the re-victimization that Cheryl experienced during and after the trial still occurs to present-day sexual abuse victims. Such victimization can be seen when law enforcement, attorneys, and service providers do not interact with a victim in a way that is conducive to the victim-centered approach. The victim-centered approach focuses on the needs and concerns of victims to ensure that services are delivered in a compassionate, sensitive, and non-judgmental manner. Cheryl’s story is a loud reminder of the tragedy that unfolds when neither the prosecution or defense put a victim’s safety and well-being first through the use of the victim-centered approach. When the Senate held a hearing examining the impact of allowing the trial to be aired on television, Ronald Pina, the district attorney of Bristol County, Massachusetts stated “rare is the woman who can endure both the trauma of rape, and the trauma of a highly publicized trial.” Unfortunately, Cheryl’s story is a reminder that although our justice system can be bewilderingly entertaining, such entertainment is always rooted in the suffering of another. If you would like to read more about the victim centered approach, you can do so here: The Victim-Centered Approach.
It’s hard to say what is more heinous about what happened to Cheryl. Was it our justice system’s blatant disregard for her safety by not implementing procedures to keep her identity concealed during the trial? Was it the media spreading her name like wildfire despite recognizing the potential dangers she faced by doing so? Was it the disturbing and merciless victim-blaming by the defense team? Was it the public’s desire to use this crime as a way to further perpetuate discriminatory beliefs towards the Portuguese community and immigrants as a whole? Truly, the ranking of these negligent and despicable acts doesn’t matter, because the only person who really paid for them was Cheryl. She paid for them in every day of her life following her assault. The men who raped her only served six years in prison, but Cheryl was given a life sentence as she could never escape being amounted to nothing more than the woman who was raped on a pool table. We cannot let this sentence transcend even after her death. We must say her name and honor the life she lived as a survivor who bravely stood up in front of the world and demanded to be heard, ultimately allowing others after her to do the same.
Attorney Don Pumphrey, Jr. is a former prosecutor, former law enforcement officer, and a successful and experienced criminal defense attorney. Don has achieved over 100 not guilty verdicts at trial and over 2,000 dismissals.