Saturday, September 23, 2023

Sex and the Ex

Nearly four decades ago, a vivacious gossip columnist named E Jean Carroll was sexually assaulted in an upscale New York department store dressing room by a playboy real estate tycoon. Recently, nine jurors in a federal court civil case in Manhattan unanimously agreed that Donald Trump, the ex-president was a sexual predator. Carroll was awarded a total of $5 million dollars in her assault and defamation case against Trump, who is running again in 2024 to be president of the US. This verdict finally may have consequences for someone who has escaped legal accountability

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By Kenneth Tiven

The trauma of the experience ruined aspects of her life, she said, but fearing his power, said nothing publicly until 2015 when the now famous Donald Trump, emerged as a candidate and then won the US presidency. She described it in a book she wrote, but had no legal avenue until 2022. That November, E Jean Carroll sued for battery and defamation under the New York’s Adult Survivors Act passed just months earlier, allowing people who were sexually abused a 12-month window in which to file civil suits despite any relevant statutes of limitations. From the first filing in this case, Trump insisted he did not know who she was; that it was a hoax, as were claims by other women alleging he had assaulted them.

In American jurisprudence, statutes of limitations exist for both civil and criminal causes of action, running from the date of the injury, or the date it was discovered. Murder has no calendar limitation for prosecution. New York passed the Survivors Act following several high-profile sexual assault cases in the entertainment and political sphere in that state.

Carroll’s lawyers never set any financial demands. The jury calculated a $2 million settlement for the assault and $3 million in punitive damages to her reputation and life since the event.

Trump never appeared in court. His attorney Joe Tacopina called no witnesses on Trump’s behalf, preferring to aggressively question the 79-year-old woman. How, he asked, could she be unsure if it was in 1995 or 1996. She said it was a rape. He asked: “Why didn’t you scream?” The calm and deliberate Carroll responded: “You can’t beat up on me for not screaming,” leaving the New York City courtroom. She was beaming and holding hands with her attorney Roberta Kaplan. She declined to comment except to say: “We’re very happy”.

The verdict reflects changing norms of the post-Me Too era that dispense with the assumption that women are supposed to behave in certain ways after sexual assault, and if they do not, they are not believable. Carroll made it clear that she had repressed the incident for decades, but that Trump’s 2016 campaign with the famous audio of him explaining that “stars can assault women,” had brought it all back for her.

However, her reluctance then rested, she said, because her mother was in poor health. Additionally, she recognized that Trump supporters rallied around him when multiple women spoke up about his abusive behaviour. Only after the assault scandal sent movie producer Harvey Weinstein to jail in 2017, did she decide to go public.

It will be sometime before she ever sees any of the jury’s award. No surprise that Trump’s attorneys say he plans to appeal. Several other cases against the ex-president are underway and appeals will be plentiful. This verdict finally may have consequences for someone who has escaped legal accountability with the skill of magicians like Protul Chandra Sorcar or Harry Houdini.

Trump’s next “trick” is to raise huge sums of money from supporters who wish they had his magical way of succeeding. Similarly, his appeal to angry Americans upset with changing national demographics will not be influenced by a jury stating the “clear and convincing” evidence that Trump subjected Carroll to sexual abuse and then defamed her when he called her claims a “hoax” and “complete con job”.

Trump’s legal problems are huge in both state and federal courts and will be played out over the next years. What is certain is that on November 5, 2024, if he is the Republican candidate, we will know what a majority of Americans believe about his sexual behaviour and mental competency.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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