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Friday, November 1, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Two Victims 

One day I hurried the many blocks from BART to court. When I arrived I was so sweaty I rushed into the bathroom to comb my hair and mop my face with a paper towel. I was in the bathroom a few moments before I realized I was in the women's bathroom. I just get frazzled sometimes at the courthouse. Another time I took everything out of my pockets to go through the metal detector. As I fumbled my metal box of small white breath mints, it hit the floor with a clang and little white pill-like mints went rolling under people's feet. I was so worried I just left most of them where they landed. I grabbed the box, only to stand, walk two steps, and have it slip through my fingers again, bang on the ground, spilling more. One other time going to the court, I was so attentive to my court papers I got on the wrong bus.

Aside from the times I was required to go to court, I also wanted to return to watch other cases that might help me. I wanted to understand how the system worked so maybe I could turn my case in the right direction. Legally speaking, I was a turtle turned over waving the air.

One afternoon I opened the door to Courtroom 15. I saw two attorneys who were regulars in the domestic violence courtroom where I went with my progress reports, so I knew the trial probably involved domestic violence. The jurors were just reassembling from a break. I took a seat in the nearly empty audience section. Four women were sitting across the aisle. The court clerk came over and asked me, "Can I help you with something?" I told her, "I'm just here to observe." I got my note pad and pen out.

The jury took its place; the court staff was ready. The two attorneys were ready: Mr. Zahar for the prosecution (impeccably dressed) and a tall well-groomed Mr. Zollman with military short hair for the defense. The defendant, a young, short, bit-beefy Hispanic man in street clothes, sat up at the defense table. In front of his lawyer were files, folders, and papers. Judge Mary Weiss entered, sat, and let the proceedings continue.

A young Hispanic woman walked up front and sat in the witness box. She had a face and eyes that radiated sincerity. Her whole demeanor was gentle but she appeared nervous.

The young woman, Jennie Labrero, was the victim. She had been living with her husband about two years ago when she met the defendant at her job. She was 22 at that time. The defendant was about one year younger. Her marriage had gone bad, and she and her husband had separated but still lived together. Then they were evicted, so she went to live with the defendant, Juan Viera. First they lived together in a hotel. Then after a few weeks they moved into a large room beside a garage at his mother's house. The house was filled with Juan's relatives but nevertheless he had his own big room with Jennie.

Very early in the relationship Juan got abusive. He would lose his temper and hit Jennie. The prosecution attorney slowly and patiently walked her through several incidents of abuse. It was painful to listen to. Juan had choked her until she'd lost consciousness. He'd broken one of her ribs. He'd tormented her cats, throwing them, choking them, twisting their legs. One time he injured a cat's paw because he didn't like it jumping up on the windowsill. Because the bathroom was outside and up some stairs, he wouldn't let her leave the room. She had to pee into large cups. There was the time that he wouldn't let her leave the room or eat for three days. There was the time that he hit her outside a Christmas party. The police questioned both of them but Jennie refused to say what he had done. There was the time after a bad argument where they both agreed to separate that he told her to go and then, as she was leaving, roughly took her to bed and had his way with her as she turned her head and cried. Tears trickled down her checks as she described this in court. There was also the time that he punched her in the face and she wore heavy make-up and sunglasses to work.

Every time she described something terrible he had done, she looked directly at him. He looked back or down at the table. "Do you still care for him?" asked Mr. Zahar." "Yes I have feelings for him. I just wanted these things to stop."

"They didn't stop, did they?" asked Mr. Zahar.

"No," she said with many layers of pain in the tone of her voice and the agony of her face.

"Why didn't you leave him after he had done these things to you?" asked Mr. Zahar.

"Because I loved him and I was confused."

Another time after she described being choked, Mr. Zahar asked her, "Why didn't you tell anyone or call the police?"

"Because I loved him and I thought he loved me too. I thought he would stop."

As she testified, she held the funeral card of her foster mother gently in front of her. Sometimes as she described some of what happened to her, she would rotate her head, looking upward as to a whole gallery of terrible memories. In addition to the physical violence, he also went with her when she cashed her paycheck and took the money. He was abusively jealous. He prevented her from using birth control pills. He isolated her from her friends. He frequently prevented her from going to work. She lived in constant fear that he would again lose his temper.

Jennie explained how she convinced him to go to marriage counseling. Near the very end of their relationship, she even started taking fertility pills because she hoped having a child together would make him happy. He had put a lot of pressure on her to have a child. Meanwhile, she believed, the ordeal she was going through caused and aggravated an ulcer. She described how he threatened to hurt members of her family if she left him. She talked to his mother, but even his own mother was afraid of Juan's tempers. Jennie confided in her boss, but he was at a loss as to what to do.

Mr. Zahar introduced into evidence a photo of Jennie after one of the beatings. Her face was ringed with bruises.

"How did you get these bruises?" asked Mr. Zahar.

"He hit me," answered Jennie, looking directly at Juan.

I looked at the jury. Three women and nine men. It was painful to hear of all her pain. I was very moved by her courage to stand in front of everyone and face her tormentor.

The following day was Mr. Zollman's turn. His job was to defend Juan Viera. Oh, thankless job. How could that be done?

Mr. Zollman stood on the far side of the jury, directly facing Jennie. He had no intention of being Mr. Nice Guy. He accused her of trying to "strike it rich" by asking for restitution with the Family Court action. He attacked her for living with her husband while seeing another man. He suggested one of her medications was for Herpes. She insisted the medicine was prescribed for her ulcer.

Mr. Zollman asked her, "Why did you stay with him for two years if he started beating you within a month?"

"Because I forgave him. Because I loved him."

Mr. Zollman read a written statement to Family Court that Jennie had sworn to about one of the times Juan had choked her: "I thought I was going to die, so I closed my eyes and waited to die. Then his sister came home and he stopped. He pretended nothing happened."

Then Mr. Zollman again attacked her for not leaving Juan. He said, heavy with sarcasm, "When you finally got around to calling the police…"

She wiped some tears away and just insisted she loved Juan and wanted things to get better. Love is a strong bond.

During this cross-examination, Mr. Zahar repeatedly made objections. Over and over he said, "Objection, your honor, argumentative." Or "Objection, calls for speculation." Or "Objection, your honor, the question has been asked and answered." The judge also asked both attorneys to approach the bench several times. Nevertheless Mr. Zollman plowed straight ahead. In my opinion he wanted to make her out as a liar, sexually loose, a predator of men, a two-timer, an opportunist hoping to cash in by using the courts, someone who secretly wanted to run off with her boss and dump her boyfriend just as she had done earlier when she dumped her husband.

But her story held. It held beautifully. Her courage took his battering. Her credibility held without a crack or flaw.

After this hammering Mr. Zollman got his reward, although I don't believe he was ever aware of it. When at last Jennie was allowed to step down, she walked past me, gave me a direct look that said, "It is all true." And walked alone down the aisle and went out of the courtroom. When the jurors and I walked out a few moments later, all of us, one by one, walked past her, beyond the second door where two women were hugging her and she was releasing a torrent of wails and sobs, her shoulders trembling. She had held it all in until just outside.

I walked on down to the men's bathroom and found myself in tears as well. It was on that day, seeing this, that I realized again all I too had gone through. That I too had gone through so much hell because I loved my wife so blindly, stubbornly, and fiercely. I too was a victim.

I couldn't understand why Juan Viera would ever take this to trial. How could he possibly win? Not only did it seem hopeless, but he had an attorney that I think the jurors must have loathed. Maybe his attorney would tell me the job he did was necessary to shake a liar. Jennie happened to not be a liar but the ordeal had to be endured. My own thought was that both he and Juan should go to jail. They were both abusive. With a lawyer like that, you're better off without any lawyer. Aren't you?

The next day the arresting officer was called to the stand.

And then Police Detective McFadden from the domestic violence unit. He answered questions such as why a victim would stay with an abuser. He also described what kinds of things he typically might see that would convince him someone was actually a victim and not making a story up. He said he'd been involved with more than a thousand cases. Although no two were identical, generally there are six or seven incidents of violence before the victim would call the police. Also the victims almost always had one or more people they confided in.

Mr. Zollman asked the detective what signs might there be that a woman was not telling the truth. Detective McFadden said first he would look for inconsistencies in the story itself - if it just didn't hold together; if it was highly improbable. If the alleged victim said one thing to the police and another thing in a document like a sworn declaration to Family Court. It would not prove the person was lying, but it would make him want to take a closer look.

After Detective McFadden testified, the prosecution rested.

The following Monday it was the turn of the defense to make a case. Sometimes the defense decides to make no case at all. Instead, they argue that the case of the prosecution simply isn't strong enough for a conviction. But Mr. Zollman and this defendant were not to go quietly. Mr. Zollman called Juan Viera to the witness stand. Jennie was not in the court, so he didn't have to look at her when he told his tale.

Mr. Zollman began going slowly over each allegation and each incident. Juan had a different version of everything. He said, no, they had not lived in a hotel; at first they had lived with his sister and his sister's small child. No, he wasn't unemployed; he had two jobs most the time he had been with her. Did she pee into the cups? That happened only once when she was in the shower, badly needed to go and asked him for a cup. It was her idea. It happened only once. The three-day starvation? There was plenty of food but she was a super finicky; she only ate McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC. The Christmas party fight? According to Juan she was drunk and had started a fight with another woman and he had broken it up and taken her home. The picture of the bruises on her face? He had no idea. Couldn't say.

Not only did he have a buttoned-down excuse for each and every single accusation. When Mr. Zollman asked about the final break-up when she called the police, he started sobbing. In their final argument he had told her he was seeing another woman and didn't care for her any more. He said he had made that up because he was angry, but he didn't have another girlfriend. The court had to take a fifteen-minute recess.

Either Juan was innocent or he was one son-of-a-bitch hardened liar. I really began to wonder who was telling the truth. But then I thought, why would Jennie make all this up? And how could she be so totally, 100% believable? And there were many small clues, like his demeanor and certain ways he expressed things, that hinted of an angry person, a volatile person who was putting on an act.

Eventually it was Mr. Zahar's turn. Mr. Zahar did a wonderful, impressive, professional job. Never browbeating. Never trying to swing around and trap Juan in a verbal ambush. He simply calmly and politely took Juan's credibility apart toothpick by toothpick.

I couldn't attend the final two days of the trial, but I eventually learned the verdict. Juan was found guilty on two of the counts and the jury was deadlocked on two others. Truth survived.