Rape suspect serving as own lawyer called extreme
Arthur Henderson's intense questioning of his alleged rape victims this week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court is an extreme, but not unprecedented, example of the trauma that victims often face in seeking justice through the criminal justice process.
While shaken, some victims rise to the occasion, answer the questions with remarkable strength and help the defendant to his downfall, said George R. "Bob" Dekle, legal skills professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law and a former prosecutor and defense attorney.
Often, defendants who represent themselves "don't have extremely good judgment. They make bad decisions, and they don't learn by their mistakes," Mr. Dekle said.
Henderson, 39, charged with raping three women over three days in January 2012, is acting as his own attorney during his trial. President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel has required Henderson to remain seated during cross-examination.
During questioning Tuesday, after one woman noted that she was held at gunpoint, Henderson asked her, "Were you comfortable having sex in that way?" On Wednesday, when one alleged victim said she was "petrified," Henderson asked her, "Would you say it's hard to have sex under those conditions?" He asked one alleged victim's husband, "You never did a threesome before?"
Mr. Dekle said defendants may represent themselves because they're suspicious of court-appointed lawyers or so manipulative that they believe they can game the legal system, perhaps by aggravating the judge into making an error that could overturn a case on appeal.
Judges sometimes give defendants "more rope than they would a lawyer" while questioning witnesses, said Mr. Dekle, who was not familiar with the Henderson case.
Some defendants relish the opportunity to intimidate their alleged victims in court, Mr. Dekle said, recalling a 1980s case in which he called a woman to testify in a murder trial. The defendant previously had been convicted of slashing the witness' throat, bashing in her head, throwing her on a garbage pile and abducting her 2-year-old child.
The defendant had a defense attorney, but as Mr. Dekle's team called the witness to the stand, "he jumped up and he announced 'I'm going to cross-examine her.' "
"She went to pieces," Mr. Dekle said.
The defendant "was a brutal, sadistic human being" for whom the opportunity to question a previous victim was too good to pass up. But on the stand, he said, the woman willed herself into an articulate, powerful witness who threw the defendant's questions back at him.
"She made him look like a fool," he said.
Allegheny County district attorney's office declined comment on Henderson's case. Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape on the South Side, said Henderson's questions -- and his repeated use of the word "sex" instead of "rape" to describe the encounters -- are outlandish.
"I assume that he's doing this as just one more way to torment a victim that he's already traumatized, and it's my understanding the victims are very composed when he is asking them," she said.
"Now," Ms. Hall added, "they're in control."
The Henderson case is similar in some respects to the January 2011 rape trial of Luis Munuzuri Harris in Tampa, Fla.
Harris, who acted as his own attorney, accused the judge of surfing the Web during the proceedings and peppered his two-hour cross-examination of the victim with personal questions, such as whether she wore underwear, according to news accounts.
The victim handled the questioning with aplomb, according to the news reports, which noted her refusal to accept Harris' use of "assailant" and other third-person terms for her attacker. "I was raped by you," she said.
When a jury convicted Harris, he became unruly and was removed from the courtroom.
A rape trial is traumatic even if the alleged victim isn't questioned by the defendant, said Tracey Provident, chief program officer at the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty. It's difficult, she said, for a victim to sit a few feet from her attacker in the courtroom, to repeat details of sexual violence in public and to have a defense attorney attempt to impeach her credibility.
Ms. Provident said it's important to prepare victims for their court appearances and to provide a strong support network of family and professional advocates. At the same time, she said, it's important to remind the public of the serious nature of sexual violence so victims report the crimes to authorities.
First Published February 8, 2013 12:00 am