Join Amber and Jason as they launch their second season of Amplified Voices with a guest you won't want to miss: Attorney Stefanie Mundhenk. In this episode, Stefanie talks about how her life was altered by an incident at Baylor University. Her journey takes us from Texas to Washington D.C., where she was a graduate law student at Georgetown, and ultimately to Kentucky where she studied for the bar and is now a practicing attorney.
Hear Stefanie explain why she believes the entire criminal legal system needs to be reformed, as she discusses Title IX and her experiences as a public defender.
Stefanie can be followed on Twitter @philawsostef
Here's a link to an article that she wrote for The Appeal:
I Was Sexually Assaulted. And I Believe Incarcerating Rapists Doesn’t Help Victims Like Me. - The Appeal
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Deb: Everyone has a voice, a story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted. What if there were a way to amplify those stories, to have conversations with real people in real communities, a way to help them step into the power of their lived experience. Welcome to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. Together we can create positive change, for everyone.
Jason: Hello, welcome to another episode of Amplified Voices. I'm your host, Jason, here with my co-host Amber. Good morning, Amber.
Amber: Good morning, Jason.
Jason: This morning, I'm really excited. We have someone that we both know through Twitter. I had the opportunity to meet her in person when she was a student down in Washington and I’m really excited to have her this morning. A good morning, Stephanie.
Stephanie: Good morning, Jason. It's really nice to see you again.
Jason: I'm really excited to share your story and to learn more this morning. So really looking forward to this conversation, the first question that we typically ask is, could you tell us about your life before you entered the criminal legal system and then how you got involved?
Stephanie: Yeah. So my life, before I entered the criminal legal system, I was just a normal kid. I grew up overseas as a missionary kid, and I really wanted to be a missionary doctor. And then I got to college and realized I was horrible at science, but really pretty decent public speaking and arguing and all of those sorts of things. So I switched to pre-law. And I actually knew pretty quickly that I wanted to do criminal law. I just thought that I wanted to be a prosecutor.
Jason: Oh, boy. So was it just a class that you took that got you interested? Was it TV shows? Did you have a family member that was in law?
Stephanie: I don't have any family members in law. I’m the first one. I guess the thing that got me interested in law is I took a debate class in high school that I really enjoyed. And that's when I first started thinking I could maybe be a lawyer, but I had wanted to be a doctor for so long that I thought that I needed to give pre-med shot. And so I did, but I found out I didn't really like science. I just liked challenges. And I was up late at night listening to sort of like Supreme court arguments for fun.
Amber: Wow. Supreme court arguments for fun.
Stephanie: Yeah. And that's when I figured that maybe I was in the wrong profession.
Jason: So you start taking law classes, you think you're going to be a prosecutor, then some things happen.
Stephanie: Yeah. So I already had an inkling of an idea that I wanted to be a prosecutor. And then in my last year of college, in the spring of 2015, I was brutally raped by another student. He was on my mock trial team. He was in my major, he was in my honors program. He works down the hall from me. There was sort of no escape from him and I went to the school for help. And they offered me none. I asked for some counseling, I asked to not have to sit next to him in class, and they told me I would have to go through the title nine process in order to get any sort of accommodations, even accommodations that wouldn't impact him at all. And I think at that point I began to get very bitter and angry at what had happened. Well, my parents were still overseas, so I was pretty much alone, 21 years old, trying to sort of navigate what had happened to me with essentially no support or outside help. And I think that anger really fueled me at that point. I did believe that anyone who had done what somebody did to me deserved to die in prison, and I was so angry that I wanted to spend the rest of my life, putting them there.
Jason: So at this point, it's reinforced your mission to be a prosecutor.
Jason: Before we go on, I think it's really important. First of all, to acknowledge what you've just said.
Jason: And say, so sorry that happened to you.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Jason: And then not only the event itself, but the fact that you were re-traumatized by the school and the entire system.
Stephanie: Yeah. It was a weird time for me because, you know, I did report to the Baylor police. I did want legal help and the Baylor police told me that no sane D.A. would ever pick up my case and that the buck stops there.
Jason: What, are they saying that because you were acquaintances beforehand that part of the issue?
Stephanie: Yes, they said, because I waited for a while to report and that we were acquaintances beforehand, that it just wasn't a triable case. And I almost felt like I was getting hazed. They told me that in order to make a police report of any kind, I would have to sit in a room on video camera and sort of be interrogated at length about what had happened to me. They told me the interview could take up to five or six hours and I actually showed up on the door of the police station steps, ready to do that interview. And I had brought my boyfriend with me for support, and that was the day he ghosted me. He literally left town in the middle of the night, the night before. And so, with reeling from that, and with not knowing what to do about this. And really truly believing Baylor police, that there was no path forward for me in the legal avenues, I gave up and I withdrew my report.
Jason: That's awful. Now you're still going to school at this point. And you have exams to take and all the normal things that everybody's going through. And what should be a tremendous time in your life and your whole world has been flipped upside down. So what's going on in your head? What are you feeling? Are you able to concentrate? Are you able to take tests? Tell us a little bit about how this impacted you then, and later we'll talk about how it still impacts you today.
Stephanie: I'll say that I think the primary emotion I felt was complete and utter betrayal by everyone. My parents are wonderful and I love them dearly and we've since worked things out, but at the time I did feel betrayed by my parents who remained overseas and I felt betrayed by Baylor. I loved Baylor. I thought Baylor was my family. It was the first place I'd ever felt like I belonged. But after things fell through at the police department, I went to human resources and I was like, there's this guy that works down the hall from me in my academic building. I can't go into advising without seeing him there. I need some help. And they did an investigation and I gave them a list of like 25 witnesses to interview who would have told them that I was deeply depressed and anxious in a way I had never been before that. I didn't go out anymore during mock trial practice. I would like run to the bathroom and like have to cry and throw up because he was there. Things like that. And they didn't interview a single witness of mine. They went to the person who raped me. They went to his roommate who was not present at the time. And they said that he had made a statement saying he was there and he didn't hear a struggle. I found out later when I went through a title nine investigation, that the statement that his roommate had actually made was very simple. It said “I was not present at the time of the incident,” and was signed by him. And so human resources came back to me and said they couldn't do anything. So, then I went to title nine and I went through the title nine process, and it was more of the same sort of repeated phone calls interrogating me. Just like a horrifically long process where essentially I was told that if I told anybody else what was going on, I would be expelled. And this was just a few weeks before graduation. So this consumed my life in a way that didn't allow me to deal with like, you know, emotional trauma. You know, I put myself through school. I was taking 18 hours of classes and working upwards of 50 hours a week to support myself. And I just had to buckle down and do it. And so there was a lot of sort of postponing the trauma, I would say.
Amber: Right. I'm astounded in some ways that this happened and then I'm not astounded because of all of the people that we've talked to.
Amber: You know, my own experiences and things like that. So, if you don't mind, could you talk a little bit about what title nine is?
Stephanie: Yeah. So, title nine is an adversarial process. It's almost like a mini-trial system. Essentially, you go and report there's an investigation made, and then you're supposed to go before like a board. And usually, it's a board of like professors or, you know, like other employees who have signed up or title nine employees and they listen to your case. And at the end of it, they decide whether or not the person who raped you was responsible or not, whether in fact, a rape occurred.
Amber: And this is a process that applies in higher education.
Stephanie: Correct. And essentially the, I would say like, the maximum sanction, the thing people are going for, is to expel the person who hurt you.
Stephanie: So it's sort of like the due process that the student gets before anything disciplinary-related happens to them.
Amber: So this is a process that is completely separate from a criminal complaint.
Stephanie: Yeah. Sometimes they're combined. Sometimes people do both and come at it from both angles. Kind of like how I came at it from human resources and title nine. But essentially, title nine just deals with what the school can do to make sure that the alleged victim has, um, the support that they need while also making sure that the person who may have harmed them gets appropriate punishment. And that there's enough proof to support that punishment.
Amber: And you mentioned that feeling of betrayal, because it does seem that you reached out in so many different ways. And at any point was somebody like, hey, there are some services available to you for mental health or therapeutic intervention or anything like that.
Stephanie: I wish. Because the truth of the matter is if I had been able to take an independent study in the class that I shared with him, and if I had been offered counseling, I would not have wanted to go through title nine. Because I didn't want a mistake on his part or a bad choice on his part to affect the rest of his life negatively. I didn't feel that expulsion was what was needed.
Jason: You didn't evolve to that thinking you thought that right away?
Stephanie: Yeah. And they told me the only way I could get those services was to prove in a title nine setting that he had actually raped me. And I remember calling the counseling center at Baylor. Every student is supposed to get 10 free sessions, or was supposed to at the time I was there. And they didn't call me back for weeks. And when I finally got a hold of them, they said, what are you calling for? And I said, I was raped and I really need some help. And they said, I'm sorry, you have problems that can't really be dealt with in the 10 sessions that are allotted the students here. You need to seek outside counseling, and hung up on me. And that was the extent of the mental health services I received through Baylor.
Jason: So, basically you're being told if you want any help at all, you have to come forward into a process that's going to severely impact the future.
Jason: So you have a choice. You either preserve yourself and damage someone else or leave yourself vulnerable to not healing. Right?
Jason: That's a tough place to be. It's almost like being re-victimized.
Stephanie: Yes, I did feel re-victimized. I felt that the entire purpose of the investigation was to find out whether I was lying. And to me, that approach is a little bit different than finding out whether someone was raped. I guess, in my opinion, the person who raped me received special accommodations that I was not allowed. I had text messages with him, where he alluded to what had happened. And while he didn't say it directly, in a sense apologized. And they told me that I was not allowed to submit those text messages as evidence unless he agreed that he wrote them. And then at the same time, he submitted a handwritten note that was allegedly written by me, telling him the sex was so good the night before. That's not a note that I wrote and it somehow made its way into the evidence without me ever being asked whether I actually wrote it.
Jason: It's terrible.
Stephanie: And when the evidence was all collected and put together, I was told that if I wanted to come in and review the evidence and see what he had said before the hearing, I had to come in during business hours. Now at the time, I was working full-time. It took weeks for me to be able to get away. I think it was something like a couple of days before the hearing that I got to come in and skim the notebook. And then at that point, the person who had raped me was no longer in town. And I made kind of a joke to the investigators saying like, Oh, I guess we'll at least I have an advantage over him. He hasn't even seen this. Um, and they said, Oh, we emailed it to him.
Stephanie: I had asked for it to be emailed to me. And they said, no, they could absolutely not do that. And so it was like, things like that along the way, where I felt that he was given special accommodations for his situation and I was not.
Jason: Well that's awful. So, you also were in a school setting which is its own mini-population. You are in the same program. So, where people choosing sides?
Jason: What was that like?
Stephanie: Horrible. A lot of people did take my side and I was very grateful for that. You know, it was a hard time because the mock trial team, at that point, we were going to nationals for maybe the first time in the school's history. We're practicing together a lot. And I was so conscious of the fact that any misstep could tear the team apart. So, you know, people did take my side. There are also people who took his side and there are also people who took no side at all, which to me is the same as taking his side.
Amber: So Stephanie, when you think about all of the things that kind of transpired and the systems that were in place, what could have been a better way to handle the situation?
Stephanie: I think that if someone comes to you and says I was raped and I need help, I think that title nine mandates that you give them that help. I think the only time that you need any sort of due process is if the help that someone asks for directly impacts the life of the person they're alleging has harmed them. In my case, I didn't want anything to do with him. I didn't want him to suffer any consequences at all. I just wanted it to go away. And so, I think that if you have someone who comes to you and says I've been raped, and I need these services, you should provide them to them without some sort of hearing. I think that if I said, I want him removed from this class, there should've been some sort of investigation, right? Because it's not fair to just remove someone just because someone says so. And if I had said, I want him expelled, there should have been a full-fledged investigation and hearing because he should have those rights too. I believed that then and I believe that now, but I think there should be graduated approaches based on what the victim is seeking.
Amber: We hear this idea of centering victim's voices, and victim-centered processes, and things like that. It's true, victim-centered processes would really focus on what the victim needs and wants to deal with the immediate trauma. Am I characterizing that correctly, that you're saying that?
Stephanie: Yes, I am. I'm also sort of adding the caveat that there should be limits. Essentially, just because the victim wants something doesn't mean they should automatically receive it. It's like a Venn diagram, right, of solutions that just impacted the victim and solutions that also impact the alleged assailant. And so, if those circles overlap at all, there should be some sort of due process for the person who's being accused of doing this harm, but if we're in the part of this circle, that doesn't impact the alleged assailant at all, then I think the victim should get those services outright.
Amber: I really think that that is an important thing for people to hear, and I wish that everybody could have kind of seen, you were making a little diagram with your hands while you were describing, and it was quite effective. So I really appreciate you sharing that.
Jason: So, we know you go to law school. I'm sure there's some steps in between here and there. You're thinking around wanting to be a prosecutor versus public defender. Did the shift happen in law school or before then? Take us on that journey.
Stephanie: Well, so it's really funny. Every application material I sent to Georgetown law centered around the fact that I wanted to be a prosecutor. I was accepted under that impression. But the summer before law school started, I had an acquaintance who worked at a criminal defense firm in Waco, which is where I was in Texas at the time. And he asked me to come work for him that summer. He would pay me, I needed a job, etc., etc. So in my mind, I was thinking, Hmm, I'm going to be a mole. I'm going to see what the other side does. And then I'm going to use that and I'm going to take it to be an even more effective prosecutor because now I know the defense's secrets. So, one of my first days at that job, I remember walking into an arraignment courtroom. And throughout this process, because Baylor had told me that I could not report to the Waco police, I could only report to Baylor police and then they would decide whether it went through the Waco system. So, I had never been involved in the criminal justice system up until that point. And, you know, I had these preconceived notions of what justice was and what the justice system would look like. I was like a law and order guru, you know? So I expected that when I walked into an arraignment courtroom, I would see people from, like, all walks of life who had done really bad things. That's what I was expecting to see. And that's not what I saw. I walked into the courtroom and I saw a room full of mostly black individuals waiting to meet their lawyer for the first time. And it was obvious from the way they were dressed that they did not have money. And so it hit me in the gut, like a gut punch, like when you walk in the room and you see that, there's no way you can look at that and say nothing is wrong here. And at the time, I didn't know what was wrong. I didn't know why it was this way, but I knew something wasn't right. And throughout that summer, I was very lucky he let me jump right in, I got to go to the jail and talk to clients there. I got to work on cases, look at body cam. And throughout the summer, I realized more and more that these weren't terrible people who had done terrible things. These were people who had largely suffered a large amount of trauma in life who had had their life choices severely limited by factors beyond their control and who were fighting mental health battles and addiction battles, and other battles. And that they had all just made mistakes. I worked on a rape case and I spoke with the victim who was a young girl at the time. And she acknowledged that it had happened to her. And the thing that she said was, I don't want him to go to jail. I want my daddy to come home. So it was like, I started seeing the gray.
Jason: So, how did that affect you? I mean, you made a comment earlier about you had delayed healing. You really weren't able to address the trauma as it happened. And now you're a recent graduate and you're confronting this situation and you have to defend somebody. What's going on in your mind and your emotions?
Stephanie: I will say that at that time, I didn't have the terminology “prison abolitionist” in my mind. But that summer I began to severely question whether 99% of people should be in jail at all. Even people who had done terrible things. I think in my mind there was this carve-out where I was like, well, what if somebody did what somebody did to me? What was done to me, wrecked my life so wholly and completely, and then what Baylor did to me hurt me more than the rape itself did. And so, it was like carrying that with me. It's like there was this carve-out. I believe that everything in the criminal justice system is wrong, except for maybe they are doing rape cases the right way. I knew mentally that wasn't true. I just couldn't reconcile that with like my emotions. And so, by the time I got to law school, I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a public defender and I was doing a JDMA program. So honestly the next four years became almost exclusively about learning how to be an effective public defender and learning how to reconcile what had happened to me with the high probability that I would defend people who are guilty of that same thing.
Amber: I really appreciate you sharing so vulnerably that kind of push and pull that you felt, because I think that there are a lot of people out in the world who hold very strong beliefs about criminal justice reform and abolition who have experienced some sort of harm in their background, who struggle with that. And they find it very difficult to struggle with that in a public way or to tell someone this is how I'm feeling. And even now having been impacted by both of those things in my own life. There are times when I struggle with a visceral reaction to someone who's caused harm. And learning how to reconcile that and work with that, and understand what's emotion, what is trauma. That is your own trauma speaking and working through that is something that is really hard to do, and I really commend you for working on that and continuing that. So, I really wanted to highlight that.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Jason: Stephanie I mean, we'll keep going in a minute, but you just have such a powerful voice because of who you are. All the Twitter community has been invested in your whole graduate law school experience, and then recently studying for the bar. So, I just wanted to stop for a minute and say that. But let's pick up where we are. So, let's talk a little bit more about what's going on in your thought process as you go through the whole law school years, and what's going on with you.
Stephanie: Yeah. You know, in the first couple of years, I think my mindset was essentially like, I don't think anyone should go to jail. But I don't know if I could ever represent someone charged with rape. And so, I worked really hard, both, you know, in therapy and in my studies, to learn how too. I understood, on a level, that there shouldn't be carve-outs. And so for me, it was about finding a way to process things in a way that I understood and could believe in and articulate to others about why this carve-out should not exist. And so, I did a master's degree in philosophy. But I was really fortunate to have teachers and classes where I can kind of shape that into sort of like a restorative justice study. And so, I took classes called like, moral damage and moral repair, you know, even just ethics classes. And I began to learn that everything about the system, doesn't rehabilitate people, doesn't repair the damage that's done to victims. And often victimizes the victims in similar ways to the ways I was victimized at Baylor, but also even, much worse. And so, what had happened to me at Baylor actually had gone kind of viral and ultimately went national. I had been interviewed on “USA Today,” “Good Morning, America,” you know, ESPN, as it came out of the woodwork that Baylor had suppressed multiple rape cases. After the title nine process found that person who had raped me not responsible, I wrote out an email to Ken Starr, who was the president of Baylor University, at the time. At the time, there were multiple allegations about football players who had raped other women at Baylor University. And so, I began to see it as a Baylor problem. And I was receiving the school-wide emails where Ken Starr was all, “I have this under control, nothing's going on sort of thing”. There was such a focus on athletics, which was not a factor in what happened to me. At the time I worshiped Ken Starr. Baylor was my family. Like, I wrote him this email that said, I love Baylor, despite all of this. I love Baylor and I wouldn't be writing this email if I didn't love Baylor. And I think that you care about this issue. And because you care about this issue and are saying nothing about this, you must not know what's happening because at the time other women had started coming to me. And once they heard about what happened to me and saying it happened to me too, it happened to me too. This happened to me as well. So, I had this sit-down meeting with Ken Starr, because I essentially threatened to write a blog post publicly about what Baylor had done to me, if he would not meet with me. So, he met with me. He listened to me, gave the appropriate, you know, sympathetic responses. And I told him this isn't about my case. My case is over. It's done with, it's whatever. It's fine. This is about the culture problem. But he wanted to talk about my case. So, I did. I told him about what had happened to me. And at the end of it, he said, he believed that there had been a miscarriage of justice. That's the words he used. And that he didn't know what he was going to be able to do about my case, but he was going to do something. And so, I walked out of that meeting and then I waited. So, I carried a pen recorder in that meeting and recorded it. Texas is a single-party consent state, and I was hopeful. But months passed and Ken Starr said and did nothing about my case. And then he started writing more emails to sort of like assuage, like the Baylor population. And so, I finally had enough with it and figured he was never going to take any sort of action with what had happened. And he clearly didn't take what had happened to me seriously and what was happening to others seriously. So, I wrote this blog post. I called it, “I Was Raped at Baylor and This is My Story”. And I expected like, you know, maybe 50 people on my Facebook to like read it and like, feel bad and be like, oh that's terrible. You know, whatever. It kinda went viral unexpectedly. And around that time, what had happened with Baylor and the football team was exploding. So it was just kind of like this explosion that like mushroomed in 2016 and, you know, Ken Starr was demoted as president, left Baylor and all that.
Jason: Getting that type of exposure from what you wrote, did that help in healing or did it end up just adding to your own stress and anxiety? Or is it a combination of both?
Stephanie: Yeah, it's a weird complex combination of both. Talking about it and giving me a voice made me feel heard, which is the thing I needed to heal at the same time. Being heard invites dissent.
Jason: Everybody's weighing in as an opinion on what happened to you.
Stephanie: I don't feel like litigating my case. Is she telling the truth? You know? And so those comments wrecked me.
Stephanie: Baylor students essentially thought that I was being over-dramatic and they were mad that the football team was being looked at. They just wanted things to go back to normal. And so, it sort of like felt supported by the public and then also not supported at the same time. So that in itself, I'm not sure whether it helped or hurt. It just is what it is.
Jason: For you on a personal level, you're caught in what is such a huge cultural split. You talked about your own emotions before being conflicted. Then you look at that and you go to a macro level and you've got people who come out publicly expressing one viewpoint and the other, and everybody's weighing in on your life and your situation. That's an awful lot for anybody to carry.
Stephanie: It is. And you know, one of the people who weighed in at the time was the person who had raped me. He sent an anonymous letter to the Baylor school newspaper, essentially alleging that it was like a Carolyn and Emmett Tills situation because of his race and saying that Baylor didn't have a rape problem. But my case was handled fairly. He absolutely did not rape me, etc. So, he wrote this anonymous letter to the Baylor newspaper. It never ended up getting published, but that gave me a lot of questions about, you know, if I try to put myself in his shoes. Even if I start out believing I did this thing to this girl, when I get that email from title nine, all I'm thinking about is my future on the line. And when your future is on the line, you can't say she's right, I made a mistake and I am so deeply sorry. There's no place in our society for that. And so, in a sense, he had to lie. He had to justify what had happened, he had to explain it away, and truly at this point, I believe that he explained those things away, so many times, both in his head and publicly that he truly believes he did not rape me at all. And so, it's this weird situation where it's like, I truly believe he thinks he didn't rape me. And I truly believe that anybody looking at what happened that night could not come away with the understanding that it was anything else. And so that is weird in itself. Another weird fact is that he is currently a prosecutor and I'm a public defender, weird how that ends up.
Amber: So, if there had been some sort of restorative process, and I know we can't figure out what could have happened in the past and all of that. But in your opinion, If there were some sort of restorative process available to you at that time, do you think that you would have been in the space or your mental well-being at the time would've caused you to seek that type of process.
Stephanie: Without a shadow of a doubt. Absolutely, because at the end of the day, I'm the kind of person who feels bad saying something when someone hurts me. I know it doesn't look that way on Twitter, but, um, I'm the kind of person who, yeah, I truly believe if there had been an option, maybe he and I would have had a conversation. Maybe he and I would have been able to talk about it. Maybe he would have been able to acknowledge the harm that he had done and apologize. And you know, it's like all of these years, that's the thing I needed. And it's like all of these adversarial systems purport to be designed to extract that, but they never do. If I had had that opportunity, I might be so much better than I am today. So, I think that being forced into an adversarial process, if your choice is an adversarial process or nothing at all, I think Baylor took away that opportunity from me to reconcile. And to have that apology and to have that acknowledgment, which would have done so much for me in my healing.
Jason: Well, and even today, right? If you were to ever get that acknowledgment and apology, that would just be like a weight lifted off of you.
Stephanie: It would change my life. Because, you know, even now it's still me learning how to cope when someone isn't sorry for hurting you. At the end of the day, I had friends, I had family who believed me. I had therapy. My parents, while I believe they should have come back from overseas, in the time that they've been here since, they've really like, dropped everything to understand the way my brain works now to support what I need. You know, I was so privileged to have these things. And yet it's like this cloud that I can never quite shake that the person who hurt me doesn't believe he hurt me at all. And maybe I'm crazy.
Jason: Yeah. And you think part of the issue is that the stakes are so high in our society?
Stephanie: Oh yeah. He would be crucified if he admitted it. So, in 2017, I received a call from the district attorney's office in Waco, after all of this exploded. And it was essentially a like, do you want us to prosecute this case, phone call. And I ended up deciding that I didn't want them to prosecute it because at that time. I was severely questioning whether precedent should exist at all. And while I wanted the healing from a jury believing me, I truly believe a jury would have convicted. I believe that deep in my heart. But at the same time, I kind of think they would have convicted because he's black and I'm white. And that was a reality that I, no matter what he did to me, I could not justify a process where he would have a disadvantage because of his race. That was a line I just couldn't cross.
Jason: We’ve got to just think about what you just said and the fact that so many people won't stop and have that moral conflict. They'll just plow ahead. I mean, you're just, an amazing person. And what you're saying is that you would not have felt any better with more harm coming out of this situation. You'd still feel what you feel without the apology. He would deny it. He would just end up with additional consequences and it just becomes more harm out there.
Stephanie: Yeah. And it's like, there was this tiny vindictive part of my brain still, where I would love nothing more than for someone to come into his law school, arrest him and extradite him to Texas. That would have done a lot for that tiny vindictive part of my brain. But at the same time, that was a tiny part of my brain. You know, that's sort of like the part of my brain that still believes that what society says about this process will bring me help and healing and an advantage in some way. And I don't think that part of my brain is accurate or true or should be given space.
Jason: And you definitely think that that internship that you had between undergrad and grad school was critical in terms of that shift in thinking.
Stephanie: Yeah. And you know, I had this amazing internship in the summer of 2018 with a supervisor who, I remember we were in the jail and we were talking to some of her clients, and I got to talk to them and you know, like my heart broke for what they were going to in the decisions they were having to make. And they were talking about missing their kids and crying and, you know, it was just heartbreaking. I walked out of jail and I said, none of these people deserve to be in jail for what they did. And she goes, I don't think anybody deserves to be in jail ever. And I was like, what, and she was like, yeah, I'm a prison abolitionist. I don't think prison should exist. It like blew my mind. I had just never encountered that mode of thinking because there had always been this little carve-out in my head. I think there's so little senseless violence. If you look at violence, there's so much about it that makes sense. If you look at the entire person we can see, why they made the choice they made or why they acted the way they did. There's so few evil people in this world that go out and say, I'm going to kill this person, or I'm going to rape this person and not feel bad about it after. I don't think that happens as much as we think it does. And so, it was like, there was always this little carve-out in my head. So, that's the point at which I began writing my master's thesis on restorative justice for sex crimes, because I knew I needed to like work through what had happened to me and articulate it in a way that was consistent with my new belief: that prison should not exist. And sort of think about if prison shouldn't exist, what can we do to help survivors and rehabilitate the person who's caused harm?
Jason: So, you don't shy away from a challenge.
Amber: That seems clear at this point.
Stephanie: Yeah, sometimes you just have to face things head-on for better or worse. I've never been the kind of person who can think something and not say it. I've never been the kind of person who can shove something down and suppress it either. So, it's like everything that I think is constantly out there and I'm constantly working through that. And sometimes, you know, I'm a bit of an overshare, but it is what it is.
Amber: One thing I want to kind of rewind a little bit about, something that you shared that really struck me: the disparities in the system. I want to highlight that for people who have caused harm, but I also want to highlight that when we talk about people who come forward to talk about what's happened to them. And then what happens after that. So, you mentioned that when you got that call, they were asking you as the victim, did you want to move forward with the case? And I just want to highlight from talking to people and research I've done, and knowing a lot of people in the criminal justice space that, that doesn't always happen. So, can you talk a little bit about what you've seen in that area?
Stephanie: Yeah. So, I honestly would say like, normally that happens when there's no other evidence and when all they have is the victim. It's one thing to like subpoena a victim to sort of like corroborate other evidence that's been collected. And even if the victim doesn't want to testify, they have to try. It's another to subpoena a victim when there's like zero case at all, without their say-so. And at that point, I waited to report. There was sort of like no crime scene. I didn't know what a rape kit was. It was never something I anticipated happening to me. I had a counselor who diagnosed me with PTSD. My brain, and like my actions and my feelings, those were the only evidence that this had ever happened. And so, I came to sort of like this belief that I'm not sure that, uh, victim's testimony, uncorroborated by evidence, should ever be beyond a reasonable doubt proof. Just given what I know about memory and things like that, you know, at the time I was sort of weighing like, should my memory of what happened alone, be enough to convince people that this happened to me, to convince them to the point that they put this person in a cage for years because of it. I just couldn't have that on my shoulders.
Jason: Do you have thoughts about how you can hold people accountable without locking them up?
Stephanie: Many thoughts. Yeah. I wrote my master's thesis on this. What I've noticed is that stranger rape cases are the cases that we're all trained to believe. That's what rape is, right? Somebody jumps out of the bushes on your way home, attacks you, rapes you, and runs away into the night. Those are the things we think about. The majority of rape cases and sexual harm are perpetrated by somebody close to the victim in a way that is more subtle than like an out of the bushes attack from somebody you don't know. And so, what my thesis focused on was exploring how we can know when those things have happened and what we can do about it. And so, I sort of had this theory that, in a stranger rape case, for instance, the victim story and the perpetrator story, if they're being honest, will match up because the person who did what they did, they know they did what they did. It's so obvious to everyone. It's obvious to them. It's obvious to the victim. Things like that. If no rape occurred and it was completely a hundred percent enthusiastic, consensual sex, both people come away understanding that. What I'm interested in are these cases that are the majority of rate cases, where the people come away with differing ideas of what happened. The victim feels wronged in a way they may not be able to pinpoint. And the other person comes away thinking that everything is fine when it's not. To me, that's the signal that says there needs to be an alternative system, that if there was a place that survivors could go to and feel safe reporting to, and feel like they were going to get this restorative process to repair the moral damage, that maybe more victims would report. Because there are so many victims out there who don't want the people who hurt them to go to jail. And if jail is the only option, victims are just not going to report.
Stephanie: Specifically in those cases, those are the cases where there's minimal external evidence as well. And so, I think that there are ways to deal with that harm. If it's something the victim wants. But I do think that you know, Alyssa Ackerman has shown to us through her restorative justice circles - She does vicarious restorative justice, which is where she takes maybe a victim and a person who has committed the crime of rape, and she puts them together. And it's not the same victim but they still get to talk to each other. And the victim gets to articulate the harm that it caused her and the person who has harmed someone else gets to understand. And there can even be repairing that way. When both parties aren't on the same page, all you need is one for help to happen.
Amber: Well, I think that kind of goes back to, what we often say about restorative justice. So, you know, our current system says, okay, what law was broken, right?
Amber: And how do we punish the person for breaking that law? But restorative justice focuses on the harm that was caused and how it can be repaired.
Amber: And so, particularly in these types of intimate cases - and I'm so glad that you highlighted that the majority of sexual harm Is by someone who's known to the victim - that a lot of times these are people who the victim actually cares about. And so, the idea that it's just all or nothing…
Amber: ..is just not something that is going to heal someone. And it will cause them further harm because their life will look so very different and be harmed in so many other ways, just by reporting. So, I can say with a hundred percent certainty when I was victimized, you know, it was in the military. I went and I talked to my superiors and it was, you know, you invited it and you know, all of this. But when I thought about what next steps could be outside of that system and what it would do to everyone around me, what it would do to the unit, what that would look like I said, no, I'm not going to do that.
Stephanie: That's the thing, the criminal legal system looks at behavior and behavior is such a poor articulation of what happens in a rape case. Particularly the majority of cases where they're acquaintance rapes. When they're acquaintance rapes, you have feelings and emotional states like love, trust, things like that, that have been broken.
Stephanie: And that harms in a different way than someone's mere behavior. Behavior is someone stealing my phone. Rape is not just behavior. It's about the emotional impact and like the psychological impact of what's happened. And the criminal legal system has just never been good at dealing with things like that. It's not designed to help repair emotions of people harmed. It's designed to figure out what behavior happened and how to punish it. And there are so few times that anything else is considered or whether it's the wishes of the victim. I'm at the point where I'm handling misdemeanor domestic violence cases. It means absolutely nothing to the prosecutor for a victim, because I do have victims call me and say, my significant other is in jail. I don't want him to be in jail. I forgive him. I really need him out. I need help with the kids. He needs to have a job, etc, etc, etc. What can I do? And it's hard to say the prosecutor doesn't care. He doesn't care whether it happened anyway, but what I want is this. The only thing that will sway the prosecutor is if you write to him and say, it did not happen. It did not happen this way. He acted in self-defense, you know, something like that. And so, it's like, I have those conversations with victims where they'll be like, yeah, It happened this way, but like, I need them out. Can you help me get them out? Like, you're his lawyer, you know. And it's like, The only thing the prosecutor's going to listen to is whether it happened or not. And that's such a poor, like microscopic look at what actually is going on in any sort of like domestic violence case. And I think that translates over to rape cases quite well.
Jason: That's incredible.
Amber: Yeah. Yeah.
Jason: Wow. So, is there more on this topic you want to talk about? You want to tell us a little bit about studying for the bar.
Stephanie: Ah, studying for the bar in the midst of all of this? Um, yeah.
Amber: It just keeps on coming.
Stephanie: It does. Yeah. It never really stops, but you know, I guess it prepares me for a licensed criminal defense.
Amber: There you go.
Jason: We knew that it's still fresh in your mind.
Stephanie: Yeah. Studying for the bar was interesting. I think it relates to all of this. I'm the kind of person who thrives on being busy, I'm always overcommitted. I always took too many classes. I always did too many extracurriculars. And so, it's like the reason I did all of those things is because I have this innate fear in me that I'm actually stupid and nobody's figured it out yet. So I do all of these things so that if I can't study for a test, I don't have time. And I make a “B”, I don't feel bad about it because I'm like, Oh, I was so busy. I just didn't have time to study. If I had time to study, I would've made an “A”, you know, whatever, I'm not dumb. The bar was a weird experience because it takes away everything. School was done. Extracurriculars were done. Always doing 12 hours a day with studying for this test that I might fail. And it was like the weight of the fear of like being stupid, but also like all of the things I had pushed to the side in my mind about like trauma and things like that. Like, Oh, now there's time to descend on Stephanie studying for the bar. It sounds easy, but the mental torment was extreme. And I think that happens to more people than just me, because I think law students are busy people for reasons. Like the reason I was a busy law student.
Jason: You actually made space for the bar and all this trauma that's happened in your life to come.
Jason: And so that's a weird mix to have the law and to be full of your own thoughts.
Stephanie: Yeah. The thing about the bar exam is like, you're not doing anything else. You're only focused on the bar. And so it's like all of your little self-worth eggs are in one basket and that's a lot of pressure.
Amber: That is a lot of pressure. Can you talk a little bit about how COVID-19 came into play with the bar exam?
Stephanie: Yeah. You know, when I graduated in the middle of COVID-19, I always believed that like, it would be over soon. It would be over soon, you know. I started studying for the bar and it would be over soon, but then we started getting these emails about, oh, we'd have to like pass temperature checks. We'd have to like wear a mask. And I've gotten accustomed to it since, but for me wearing a mask was part of the reason I went home for the summer to only study for the bar and not work. And not go out in public and live with my parents who can take care of me was because going out with a mask over my mouth and nose is extremely triggering after the way that my rape happened.
Jason: Even separating that from the bar, for me, I think it's really important to talk about that because a lot of people take sides, you know, relating it to your freedoms.
Jason: But put that aside. I don't want to get into that political argument.
Amber: A good plan.
Jason: In terms of somebody in your situation where it has a whole terrifying, traumatic impact, also that's something that we really have to be conscious of as a society and be more forgiving of people.
Stephanie: Yeah. It's one of those things where it's like, I care about other people, so I desensitize myself to it. I think for other people, the bars like stressful in a certain way. For me, it's like the person who raped me, sat behind me while we took the LSAT together. Ever since then, I've had extreme test anxiety, if you look at my exam grades in law school, every single exam, where I was able to take it from home on my laptop, instead of in a class lecture hall setting, I scored a whole entire letter grade better.
Stephanie: Just because of like the trauma that like test-taking in general in that situation, relates to me. I'm thinking, I'm going to have to take the bar in this setting with a mask over my nose and mouth, trying to forget the trauma of the person who raped me sitting behind, you know, it was, it's so much more than just a test in a sense. I was relieved to learn that I would take it online and not be in that situation. But the stressors increased in a weird way to where we were getting limited information about the technology that would be used. We actually still don't know how the bar is being graded. They have not given us any sort of like points or grading system.
Jason: Plus you didn't know whether they were going to cancel it.
Stephanie: Yeah. And when the bar got canceled, I moved to Kentucky immediately and I started my job on July 27th. I've been a public defender for three months now. I've never had a single client asked me whether I passed a bar exam. They don't care. I mean, I’m carrying a caseload of 60 misdemeanors. I go to court, I have a supervisor in court with me because of the Supreme Court order that says until I'm licensed, I have to. But I largely handled the cases. I've never drawn on anything I learned on the bar in these past three months. I've honestly forgotten the bar exists because it feels like a whole other world. I'm waiting for results and it's like, if I fail, it's going to plunge me back into that world where it's like, not based in reality.
Stephanie: It's actually kind of heartbreaking to me. I've had multiple clients so far tell me, you're the best lawyer I've ever had because you call me, you return my calls. You seem like you really care. You explained things to me really well. Like, none of it is, you're the best lawyer I've ever had because you probably got a really good grade on the bar exam. Or, your legal analysis is so on point, you know, like that's not.
Amber: I read your law review article.
Stephanie: Right? Exactly. They don't care. They care whether they're getting out of jail or not.
Amber: And I think because of the person you are, they probably are just thrilled that somebody sees them.
Amber: Somebody sees them as the human that they are.
Stephanie: I was talking about this with my supervisor the other day. My supervisor is amazing. When I walked into public defense, even though I had interned so many different places and like spent a lot of time working on a lot of serious cases and stuff, I had this idea that I was going to stand between injustice and my clients. And I was going to help the helpless. And I was completely unprepared for it entirely, how helpless I feel. Being a public defender is less about standing between your clients and injustice and more about how you know that the journey, no matter what, because of the way the system is designed, at the end of the journey they end up in a cage.
Stephanie: And all you can do is walk them to that cage, give them a hug along the way, and maybe throw out an argument that makes them feel heard, if the judge will give you space. I think that matters. And so, in a sense, I think calling your client's matters more than winning in court. Because winning in court is arbitrary. It depends on whether the judge has had lunch that day, you know. Like it depends on so many things that aren't your legal prowess. I never before realized how much about public defense was being a companion and saying, I'm going to fight for you. Even if that fight is futile, your voice still deserves to be heard. And not about legal prowess or knowing the rule against perpetuities at all.
Jason: Well, let me just say that you're just getting started and you're going to have a phenomenal career. And if anybody can change the system, I'm confident it'll be you.
Amber: I agree a hundred percent. And I have to say I had to be quiet for a minute cause I was getting completely choked up because of your passion and the beauty of your soul. And I'm just so thrilled that you're doing what you're doing.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Jason: I hope that you're inspiring additional people to follow in your footsteps from this podcast alone. I know some other things, like you had written an article, was it for the Appeal?
Jason: We can talk about that.
Amber: We'll put that in podcast notes so people can check it out.
Jason: Yeah. You've done so many things already because you are so active. And I think we could probably keep talking for another four hours. But I wanted to ask you, what is your thinking in terms of registries, particularly sex offense registries, at this moment?
Stephanie: Um, they suck and should be abolished. My more articulate answer is that I became aware of the way that the legal system gets around the rights that people have. And so, it's like you have the right to a lawyer unless you're in for a probation violation, because that's not a crime, that's just a violation. Or, you know, like these collateral consequences, like you're entering into this plea deal and surprise, you're going to be on a list for, you know 25 years, that makes your neighbors hate you. It keeps you from getting a job, you know, all of these things. It's like, if the goal of our system was really to rehabilitate people, we wouldn't constantly create new magical ways to send people back to jail without due process. And I think that probation is one of those ways that the government keeps tabs on people. I think parole’s one of those ways, I think the sex offender registry is a huge way. It's a weapon that people use to create crime when it doesn't really exist, because now all of a sudden failure to register on this arbitrary list is now a crime that you can go to prison for. When you get out of prison, you're going to have factors that only make you more likely to recidivate. I just think they're useless. They don't protect people because again, the majority of sexual assaults happen by someone that the victim knows and cares about. Additionally, it keeps people from getting jobs, you know. There are those collateral consequences and it's not a good marker of who's dangerous. There are so many things that go into considering whether somebody is still an active danger to society, but the evidence shows that people on the sex offender registry don't re-offend sex-related crimes any more than anybody else. And so, in a sense, it's not working. But it's also not a good indicator, how to alert the community to the fact that there's danger. And it goes into bail, risk assessments, and stuff where we try to use math and like other tools to measure how dangerous somebody is. But the problem with all of those things, sex offender registry included, is that they look at behaviors more than mentalities.
Amber: And they also are based on past data that has been collected by a system that only sees punishment.
Amber: And is racially disparate.
Amber: So it just continues to perpetuate the harm and it creates the exact conditions that cause sexual offending in the first place.
Stephanie: Exactly, exactly.
Amber: Isolation, disconnection…
Stephanie: Loss of power and control.
Amber: Exactly. So not only is it ineffective, it's actually creating more of the problem that it's saying it's trying to solve.
Stephanie: In addition to sort of hyping the public up. Who among us has not checked the sex offender registry when you moved to a new location. I know I have in the past because I truly believed that that was a measure of something that would keep me safe. You know, you see like predator use places and it hypes the public up against sex offenses in general.
Stephanie: Which are not again, as we've gone over, are extremely complex and are not merely about the behavior at all.
Jason: So, do I hear you right? In your future world where you've reconstructed how our justice work, we have a much-reduced prison system. We don't have the same parole and probation mechanisms. And there's no registry.
Stephanie: Throw it all out.
Jason: So what's going on for you now and tell us if there's anyone you want to specifically acknowledge or shout out; if there's any organization you want to make people aware of or how to follow you on Twitter, all that good stuff.
Stephanie: Okay. I'd like to think my parents.
Jason: That's important. So, you know, you said that you felt this issue with your parents. So, you and your parents are tight now.
Stephanie: We're very close now. I think, you know, there was a lot in my childhood that happened. There was a lot when I was in college and going through what I went through that happened. But since then, I think that my parents care an extraordinary amount about me. There have been so many times when I'm with them, especially when I was with them over the summer, that I've noticed that they've studied up on like how to help someone with PTSD and anxiety. And like, they just show this complete total emotional, heartfelt investment in making life easier for me. So, it’s definitely thank you to them. I also got extremely lucky with where I work. I actually found out about the Kentucky Public Defender's Offices through Twitter. I follow Rodney Barnes, who is one of the regional directors, and he kind of recruited me. And so, now I work with him. I work with some other really amazing people. I am actually working on a murder case with Rodney, so that's really exciting. And I actually moved from the Lexington office in Kentucky and I'm in this little town called Danville, and it's amazing. There's like three judges and two prosecutors. Like, it's just a tiny little County and I love it. It's so much more community-based and my supervisor is amazing. She's on Twitter too. Her name is Jessica. She's been really helpful to me in walking me through, you know, how to represent people well. And so, I think that I'm like finally in this season where I feel like I was always supposed to end up here. I feel like I belong somewhere now. Life is stable, and sometimes that's hard for me. I think when you grow up with trauma, you're used to that chaos and conflict, and now I'm having some mental health struggles with having the same schedule every day and things like that. So, it's almost like when one thing in your life gets stable, you kind of realize how woo woo woo you are. And so learning how to live a stable life has been challenging, but I'm really excited to be where I'm at. And yeah, everybody should work for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. And if you want to follow me on Twitter, it's at philawsostef, that’s p h i l a w s o s t e f.
Amber: Awesome. Stephanie, thank you so much for spending time with us today. You're doing amazing work and we will post a few things in the podcast notes, so people can learn more about you and find you on Twitter. And we again are so appreciative of your work and your time spent with us today.
Jason: It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for coming on.
Stephanie: Yeah, definitely thank you for having me.
Jason: Until next time, Amber.
Amber: We'll see you next time.
Lilly: You've been listening to Amplified Voices, a podcast, lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. For more information, episodes, and podcast notes, Visit amplifiedvoices.show.
Tim: Amplified Voices is produced by Whole Human Productions. Executive Producers include Chris Vlangas, and our hosts, Jason and Amber. The intro is voiced by Deborah Vlangas, the outro is voiced by Lilliana Vlangas, and the music is composed and produced by me, Timothy Vlangas. If you'd like to support the production of the show, please subscribe at patreon.com/amplifiedvoices.