April 01, 2017
Houston’s criminal justice system erupted in scandal when a rape victim filed suit in 2016 alleging that she had been jailed to compel her testimony. District Attorney Devon Anderson, in the midst of a heated re-election campaign, knew immediately how bad this looked. But prosecutors, she explained, found themselves in a “perfect storm” of extenuating circumstances: Jailing a young woman who had been brutally raped was the only way, Anderson said, her office could guarantee her appearance in court and take a serial rapist – a “monster’’ – off the street.
Anita Hassan of the Houston Chronicle knew better.
Hassan’s courthouse sources were telling her it wasn’t quite so simple. She then spent months digging into court records, cultivating detectives who worked sex crimes and tracking down a long line of homeless women who’d been raped by the same man. What she found was indeed a “perfect storm” of indifference, incompetence, callousness and misfeasance that was so outrageous that Houston law enforcement officials had allowed over 6,000 rape kits to go untested for years.
In that backlog were multiple DNA samples from the “monster” whose belated conviction would never have been necessary had those kits tying him in one-in-a-million certainty to multiple prior rapes been tested in a timely fashion. Hassan also found that police and prison officials failed to make the man register as a sex offender, failed to enter his DNA profile into a national database and plea-bargained a series of rapes down to less serious crimes and released him from custody. Indeed, Hassan showed how the rape for which he was finally convicted – after the jailing of his victim – came just 31 days after he walked out of jail a free man.
Hassan’s doggedness and passion for this story led her to spend weeks on the streets, searching for his victims, a number of whom she found and interviewed in great depth. But what really separated Hassan from prosecutors was her unwillingness to write off some of the most powerless women in Houston, many of whom were drug addicts and prostitutes. As one of the women, denied a jury trial because of a plea bargain, told Hassan: “I wanted them to know it’s not right, and it’s not right for anybody to go through that, no matter who they are and what they do.”
The day after Hassan’s series concluded on April 6, 2017, the Texas Legislature passed a law prohibiting the jailing of rape victims without appropriate legal protections, a stunning result. For her insistence that the rights of poor homeless women be respected, and their stories be told, we are proud to nominate Anita Hassan and her powerful narrative series, Serial Indifference, for the Headliners Showcase award.
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Submitted by Mizanur Rahman.