Arts & Culture » Book Review

A True Crime

How a rape victim wound up being treated like a criminal




Bill Lueders

When Sun 11/12, 4:30 PM

Where Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark

Info 773-769-9299

It's fitting that a book about rape should begin with the rape itself. Abrupt and violent, such openings make the reader a witness, like it or not. Thus, in the first chapter of his new book, Cry Rape, Bill Lueders outlines the facts of the rape of "Patty." In 1997 she was assaulted at knifepoint in her Madison, Wisconsin, apartment. She went to the police, but they doubted her story. In a small, windowless interrogation room--a former cell--she was pressured to say that she made it all up. Instead of looking for the rapist, police filed charges against her for fabricating the story.

Lueders, the news editor for the Madison newsweekly Isthmus, spent six years reporting on Patty's ensuing odyssey through the justice system. (For eight months in the early 1990s I worked as an intern and writer under Lueders, and some of my first reporting was edited by him.) His first article ran in February 1998. "It was one of the few times in my career that I expected a piece of writing to have a dramatic impact," he writes. "Police and prosecutors would see what I had found...and reverse course. They would realize...that an actual rape victim was being charged with a crime." Instead, nothing. He went on to write more than a dozen articles on Patty's ordeal.

Patty did everything right. Immediately following the attack she called 911 and went for a rape exam at a local hospital. The police began their investigation shortly after the rape, but Patty, who is legally blind and was assaulted in the dark, couldn't provide a good description of her assailant. She remembered details in fits and starts. Her physical injuries weren't severe--a small knife wound to her finger and a gash on her cheek. Most damning, she didn't "act like a rape victim." Detective Tom Woodmansee, writes Lueders, "was so displeased with her answers he pointed to the bedroom where the assault occurred and said, 'If we have to go in there and role-play this thing, we will.'"

Charges against Patty were eventually dropped, quietly. Lueders walks readers through Patty's years-long struggle for justice--which exacted a devastating financial and emotional toll--and his own fight for access to police records and crime scene analysis, turning thousands of pages of police reports, court transcripts, medical records, and interviews into a gripping mystery. This would be a good crime story even if it weren't true. There's forgotten evidence, a DNA bombshell, misidentifications, vicious questioning from city lawyers, careerist attorneys and judges, and, finally, the trial of Patty's rapist and a guilty verdict. It's a meticulous dissection of a police investigation gone wrong and of the additional layers of error added by lawyers, prosecutors, judges, review boards--nearly everyone who came into contact with the case. It's an urgent read for anyone concerned about how police treat victims of sensitive crimes and how institutions defend their own.

Chicagoans are used to associating the police force with insensitivity and worse. We've seen the scars left by alligator clips, read about black boxes, suffocation, electric shock to genitals. And we're used to the false confessions these tactics produce--false confessions that led to a moratorium on capital punishment in Illinois. Most cops aren't brutal, but "sensitive" isn't the first word that comes to mind when speaking of Chicago's finest. But Madison? Lueders describes the progressive city's view of itself: "Its schools are better, its politics cleaner, its institutions of justice more just, its response to crime victims more compassionate." Madison's reformer police chief adorned his office with portraits of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. If this town can't put together a good police force, who can?

To Lueders, Cry Rape is not primarily about bad cops, prosecutors, or judges (though I'd disagree in some cases). "Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of this story is that these individuals did not set out with any ill intent," he writes in his preface. "On the contrary, they were, I believe, committed to doing what they thought was right." It was their refusal to recognize their mistakes, he argues, that led Patty down a six-year path of suffering. "The truest mark of [the justice system's] corruption," he writes on the book's final page, "is not that it makes mistakes but that it is so reluctant to admit them."

Lueders became Patty's champion because the evidence convinced him she was telling the truth. (He has posted the original documents he used to report the story at But while Cry Rape is a powerful argument for taped police interviews, policies that mandate that advocates be present when police deal with rape victims, and other reforms, Lueders doesn't directly propose any of these. He has just one simple if unassailable recommendation: police and prosecutors need to face their own fallibility.

Ironically, Lueders's aggressive coverage of Patty's case made it less likely that police and prosecutors would admit they were wrong, something Lueders acknowledges. "People and institutions behave differently when they're being watched," he writes. That is, if the media hadn't been interested in Patty's case, maybe they would have been less inclined to dig in their heels.

Still, if it weren't for his dogged reporting it's unlikely Patty would have found justice. His persistence turned him into an actor in the case--he kept Patty's story alive and fought Madison's institutions as though he had been personally wronged, to the point of filing a complaint against the police on behalf of Isthmus. Police and others charged he had an "agenda." But if Lueders had an agenda, it was just the one reporters are supposed to have: finding the truth.

Three days after its October 1 release date, Cry Rape inspired a Madison city council member to introduce a resolution that would force police to change policies regarding rape victims and have the city pay Patty $35,000 in compensation. The resolution could be voted on later this month. On October 17, due to mounting public pressure, Madison's current police chief read a formal apology to Patty, nine years after the rape.

Lueders finds hope in the fact that a jury can eventually right the wrongs introduced by the criminal justice system, but I find hope in Lueders's reporting. Through his Isthmus articles and now with the book, the public becomes witness, juror, and judge not only of Patty's assailant, but of the police, the prosecutors, and all the other people and institutions that will never be charged with a crime.

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