Victim's Rights - Sun News

'It's like a murder,' says survivor

February 15, 2008

It has been five years since Jasmine was sexually assaulted by an older cousin who fed her pop laced with whiskey and orchestrated a sex party for her and another intoxicated child. Now 17, she has made a new, stronger life for herself.

She had to make a new life, she said, because the man who raped her destroyed the old one.

"It's like a murder," the area high school student said. "It's forever in the sense that any time something really profound happens in your life, it changes who you are. You can't ever go back to the life you used to have. That life no longer exists."

But while Jasmine not only survived and prevailed over the rape of her 11-year-old mind, body and soul, she and her mother, Denise Rotheimer, are still fighting for justice. Rotheimer, 36, is proposing a Survivor's Rights Act to ensure the rights of victims of violent crimes. A new law is needed, she said, because the current Crime Victim Rights Act does not oblige prosecutors to inform parents of victims of child rape of their rights or options in prosecuting the case. Parents, for instance, do not have the unqualified right now to request the maximum prison sentence, make a victim impact statement or appeal decisions they believe are unjust.

"A defendant may be looking at 10 years, but if they want to plea, they can probably get a prosecutor to give them five or six," Rotheimer said. "Why? Because the prosecutor lost her last case and she needs to win one. That's how it works. It's a game that plays out between the prosecutor and defense attorney. It's like a basketball game, and the state is home court. Nowhere, at no time, is the rape victim a player. The victim is sitting on the sideline."

In Jasmine's case, prosecuting attorney Laura Horner initially proposed that Michael DeSario of Round Lake Beach serve three years less than the minimum sentence of six years for a Class X felony charge of predatory criminal sexual assault of a minor.

Rotheimer insists Jasmine's rape was minimized by Horner because the prosecutor focused on factors that would qualify for a minimum sentence. Factors in the sentencing request included lack of bodily harm to the victim, the defendant's lack of prior serious arrests, the fact that Jasimine was raped only once, and that the girl was under the influence when the attack occurred.

"The state does not build its case on your child's rape," Rotheimer argued. "If the defendant raped your child only the one time and she/he was his first victim, then it is likely that the prosecutor will plead for the minimal sentence or request probation by requiring the defendant to register as a sex offender. They call it 'a second chance.'"

On the day of sentencing, Feb. 18, 2003, Rotheimer said she "begged" a bailiff for the opportunity to speak to presiding Judge Mary Schostok. She was allowed to briefly disclose that DeSario had forced oral sex on the girl and also penetrated her when the rape was interrupted by a relative. As a result, Schostok overruled the prosecution's request for the minimum and sentenced DeSario to 7½ years in prison -- still far short of the 30-year maximum.

Rotheimer said she was not allowed to reveal that DeSario had sexually assaulted another girl, 14, also a female relative. No charge on that allegation was brought forward.

Rotheimer is crusading against the state's attorney's practice of negotiating pleas without consulting families. She is also battling other systemic problems, including tactical delays.

"It takes two years to go to trial," Rotheimer said. "Victims fall off the radar. Prosecutors lack confidence in them in the first place. They don't trust them."

Rotheimer argues that minimum sentences put sex offenders -- the majority of whom prey on children -- back in a world where they have access to more potential victims.

"Judges give probation to people who rape 1- to 4-year-olds," Rotheimer said. "They do it all the time in Lake County. If their arms aren't broken, if their heads aren't bashed in or their vaginas aren't split apart, prosecutors aren't looking at a longer sentence. The irony is there has to be bodily harm. That's what they used to get a minimum sentence in my daughter's case, that and the fact that the defendant gave my kid alcohol. They used that fact not to incriminate the defendant, but to incriminate my daughter."

Jasmine, who carries a 4.2 GPA, hopes to attend Harvard University and some day practice civil law. She supports her mother's campaign for the enactment of new protections for victims. She rejects the notion that there is shame in sexual victimization and that victims should take refuge in silence.

"Sexual crimes are still a taboo subject," Jasmine said. "People don't want to hear it, but they need to be more aware of how predominant the problem is. Sexual assault is a serious crime and the punishment should represent the severity of the crime. You don't give a murderer a light sentence because he killed somebody once."

The Survivor's Rights Act would allow crime victims legal representation by private attorneys, afford the right to appellate relief - in effect making it a criminal offense to violate rights of victims - and provide for a signed acknowledgement that all rights have been explained.

Rotheimer chose the term "survivor" for an act she hopes will put teeth in the impotent Crime Victim's Rights Act.

"One of the reasons nothing is changing is because we're still calling ourselves victims," she said. "That's where the stigma is. I want to show people what a survivor is. That we're changing the law. The victim mentality is to do nothing. A survivor knows she is not at fault. She knows she has control, that she has power. A survivor demands justice."

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