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The prosecutor wore a skirt

Sexism is alive and well in the courtroom

Editor's note: is releasing excerpts from "Objection," a book by Nancy Grace, host of CNN Headline News' legal analysis show. In her book, published by Hyperion, the former Atlanta-Fulton County special prosecutor covers a number of topics, including the "blame-the-victim" defense, the effect of the "celebrity factor" on trials, and the debate surrounding the death penalty. The opinions expressed in this excerpt are those of Nancy Grace.



Nancy Grace
Crime, Law and Justice

From page 163:

It may not be politically correct to say, but being a female prosecutor comes with its own set of challenges. Sexism is alive and well in the courtroom. You'd think that having more women in the system would fix the problem, but I haven't found that to be true. I'm not sure why, but sometimes female judges are harder on female lawyers.

When I first came to the district attorney's office, there were very few female cops and lawyers -- female judges were even harder to find. At the time, women were usually assigned to work juvenile cases, which are not jury trials and do not apply many of the standard rules of evidence. We were usually going after deadbeat dads, writing appeals, or acting as assistants to trial lawyers. Practically everybody involved in the actual trial of cases was a man -- except the jury and, in many cases, the victim.

I've been called "little lady," "young lady," "lady lawyer," and other not-so-nice names, right in front of juries by defense lawyers, experts, and judges -- pretty much by everybody but the jury. Every time it happened, I'd look that person right in the eye and act as if I hadn't heard it. I'd inevitably catch at least one woman on the jury with a look of disgust on her face, as if to say she couldn't believe that someone had said something that condescending. So what was meant to knock me off balance usually had just the opposite effect and offended at least a few jurors. I never said a word. I didn't have to. The women on the jury said it for me with their verdicts.

Sometimes the sexism was far more insidious. During a 1995 trial in which I was prosecuting a defendant on rape, sodomy, and murder charges, I was working late one night when I heard the sounds of someone outside my office. My first thought was, Why is somebody still here this late? An investigator for the defense had gotten into the building and delivered a motion under my door. He didn't know I was still in there working. I went over and picked it up and then sat down in tears -- mortified. It was a motion filed to enjoin me from wearing skirts a specific number of inches above my knee or a blouse that was too low-cut. It also enjoined me from bending over in front of the jury facing either way.

I felt completely humiliated. All court documents are public. Anyone can find out anything about a case by going down to the courthouse and looking it up. I cried (behind closed doors, of course), because it was a public embarrassment to be accused of dressing inappropriately -- and it was flat-out not true. I still have every one of my ten trial dresses that I wore over and over and over. Every one of them covered me from neck to wrist to knee. I was personally attacked on a groundless charge that was meant to deflect attention away from the trial.

This ended up becoming a major distraction, because feminist publications from all over the country sent reporters to Atlanta to cover the story. Scores of television journalists from as far as New York came to court wanting to interview me about the motion. At the same time I was seeking justice in a case where an unnamed woman was found raped, sodomized, and strangled to death by the defendant on trial, I was being forced to address questions about what I wore to court. Even without this unwanted sideshow, I had a very difficult case to prove. I never even knew the identity of the victim.

The motion, one of the many ways the defense attempted to derail the case, was scheduled to be argued in court. The trial was a murder case and based strictly on scientific evidence. There were no eyewitnesses and no confessions. It was being heard by the same judge who had presided over my very first jury trial nearly ten years before, an attempted shoplifting. He had seen me in court many, many times. The room was filled with reporters, fellow lawyers, and witnesses, all seated and listening intently. I kept my eyes trained on the judge. Miraculously, as if an angel had heard my prayer, the judge cut off the defense lawyer who had stood to deliver his oral argument. The motion was overruled. He was told in no uncertain terms: No discussion, no dramatics -- now call your first witness. Many days later, the jury convicted on murder one.

While I remained focused on the victim, the defendant had something else in mind. Guards at the jail discovered during a routine search of his cell that he had created a file on me, complete with creepy poems and death threats. All the material was confiscated and handed over to the police. In my mind, the lawyer's behavior in this case was just a reflection of his client's. They were perfectly suited to one another. But the truth won out in the end. The defendant got life plus twenty plus twenty.

One of the reasons I am writing this book is to propose remedies for the existing problems in our justice system. Sexism is still an issue. It's the same way in the courtroom as it is in every other profession in this country: Women have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously and get the same job done as their male counterparts do. Lawyering is no different from any other profession in that way. There is one big difference in how it affects female lawyers, though. The prejudice against female lawyers has an impact on more than the individual -- it affects her clients, her cases, and her causes. A case could be won or lost because of a sexual bias. Traditionally juries love judges, because they look up to them and respect them. Whether that bias originates with the judge or the defense, the jury picks up on it.

During my years as a prosecutor, it definitely wore thin when judges or defense attorneys behaved like jackasses. I'm convinced this sometimes occurred simply because I was a woman. You can laugh it off and pretend it's a joke only so many times. I always knew that there was the avenue of suing or making a complaint, but my eye was on the prize of the trial. The most important thing to me, regardless of the circumstances, was getting justice for the victim. I always felt that whatever complaints I had, they were nothing compared to what the victims and their families were going through. If the situation were different and I was the only person involved, I would have filed a complaint in a New York minute -- but I never did.

The reality is that if a lawyer files a sexual-harassment complaint or a motion for the judge to recuse himself or against the other side, it could seriously harm the case. That attorney could be sacrificing the case in exchange for different treatment for herself. That's why you rarely see harassment complaints about judges or opposing counsel filed by attorneys, because it's basically cutting off your nose to spite your face. You'll likely see the same judge and lawyers on the next calendar call, and there's always the possibility that it will be taken out on your current case or your future cases. Thankfully, overt sexism among judges is rare. But sexism is a very difficult thing to combat in the courtroom. It's not fair, but it's the truth.

I always tried my best to stay focused on my goal and keep fighting in the courtroom. I'd like to be able to offer remedies to this situation, but, honestly, it's not that easy. It pains me to say this, because I don't by any means want to dissuade women from filing sexual-harassment claims in the workplace. I am talking strictly from my own perspective as a female prosecutor who worked in the courtroom during the eighties and nineties -- long after the so-called sexual revolution. It is my ardent hope that as more and more women enter the field and we become more enlightened as a society, the need to address this issue will disappear.

  • Literary loopholes
  • Copyright (c) 2005 Nancy Grace and Diane Clehane. All rights reserved.

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