Sarah Grace is a sexual assault survivor. On July 17, 2019, a thief broke into her apartment and violently attacked her while she was sleeping. In her new book ‘Ash + Salt’ she describes the devastating impact of the attack, her healing process and what she believes needs to change in the way we treat survivors of sexual assault. In this edited extract, she describes giving evidence at her attacker’s trial – referred to in the book as ‘The Beast’. The court had previously agreed to the lawyer’s request to erect a screen to prevent her from having to see him during the trial.
Thursday is D-Day. I woke up with my Fitbit furiously flashing 120 heartbeats per minute. My stress took to a whole new level, including an angry tension rash on my neck and jaw. It felt like the most important exam of my life. Don’t screw this up, Sarah. Don’t let Irish women down.
My heart sank as I walked into the courtroom. Now it looks very different when it is full of secretaries, security, security guards and other staff. There are about 20 people here, and the judges haven’t even joined yet. I quickly sat down on a chair, took off my Covid mask and tried to take a few deep breaths.
We waited the last few minutes, in silence, before they brought in Beast. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the judge staring at my hand. I looked down and they were clenched, my knuckles and fingers white. And then I heard it. A noise to my right, like a gasping breath, came from behind the screen. He is right next to me right now. Panic was welling up in my chest. My whole body was leaning towards the left side of the chair as far as possible, clutching the armrests and staring at the screen without blinking. I’m holding my breath for fear of making a sound.
Finally, the jury brought in jurors. I have never felt so vulnerable or exposed in my life. I started crying uncontrollably. Those were silent tears, but I couldn’t stop them. Lips still trembling, I clenched my jaw and forced myself to look up and lock eyes with 12 strangers. Despite covering their faces, their faces showed a wide variety of emotions – some fear, some curiosity, some apprehension, but also a lot of good will.
When it comes to vowing to me, my voice is so broken that it’s hard for me to get through. Breathe deeply, Sarah, this is your time. The consultant told me what happened the night before and then when I woke up. The story that I went through half a dozen kicks in as muscle memory. I began telling my story seriously, keeping in mind the advice to speak to the jury, not to a lawyer. I consider each of them in turn. When I speak, I see them listening. I’m talking and everyone is listen to me. I don’t just have a captive audience who are drinking at my word. For the first time in a long time, I felt heard. I got involved and carried on, barely interrupted by the prosecution.
It feels like I’ve been talking for hours. My jaw hurts. I slightly slid back into my chair as Defense stood up. I felt I squared off with expectations. Now comes the hard part.
The lawyer caught me completely off-guard by starting with a long paragraph about how much he believed in me, but it was his duty to ask me these questions as he had to provide his client a fair trial. He then apologized for having to put me through these questions. This is certainly for the benefit of the jury, but I didn’t expect this approach at all. I am polite and respectful to him – two people can play this game, my friend.
Then he asked me his first question, asking if the intruder had entered my room without knowing it was a bedroom. Before I knew it, I agreed that Beast didn’t know. RATS. I allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security by all that was good about him and now I testify to what I should not. When asked about the defendant’s state of mind, I should have made it clear, I don’t know. Yes, that was my first and last mistake. As for the rest of his questions, I watched my walk, taking a few seconds each time to think it over before answering.
Throughout Defense’s line of questioning, it’s clear that this strategy is to demonstrate that Beast’s sole intention was to commit the theft and not aggravate sexual assault. Yes, sure, he tripped and fell on her first. The defense asked me that the defendant broke into my house with the intention of stealing from me. I am waiting for Prosecution to object. Is not. I have to do it myself, so.
“As you know, I can only tell what I know. I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the defendant’s head.”
How do you like apples?. I feel encouraged, I do. Defense asked the same question again, rephrasing it a bit. I looked at the Prosecution – still no objection. I gave the same answer. The defense asked a third time but now the judge intervened, sternly indicating that I had answered the question and continued. Sarah in my head is doing a winning round in the courtroom.
Defense’s question becomes unfamiliar as we move on. It was clear that they were trying to cloud the waters surrounding the events to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. They told me that the defendant did not know there were no people in the apartment, and so perhaps he was simply preventing me from warning someone who would turn against him or preventing him from escaping. Again, I point out that I can’t speak Beast’s mind, however I do know that when he tried to run away from him, he ran after me twice, and that’s not the behavior of a human being. who is trying to escape.
Defense read an excerpt from Beast’s statement alleging that I attacked he, preventing him from running away and ripping off his t-shirt in the process. I admit that although I don’t remember tearing up his t-shirt, the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit found some of his blood under my fingernails from when I scratched him in self-defense. , so maybe I did, but I note that I who is prevented from escaping, not vice versa.
Finally, Defense closed the line in my statement about violation attacked “with the force of a punch”. He went on to describe a boxer’s stab and tried to insinuate that Beast’s intentions were not sexual but rather hit me in retaliation for the stab I gave him. I reminded him that my exact wording was that the offense had “the power of a punch”. Defense told me back that Beast had no intention of letting the punch land where it happened because “a punch isn’t sexual”.
And we have it, ladies and gentlemen. Even when the truth is so obvious, we waste precious time choosing the victim’s words after a horrific attack. I glared coldly at Defense before replying, my voice as cold as ice.
“I find it quite erotic.”
I saw a few jurors nod in agreement behind his back. God, that’s so satisfying.
After nearly two hours of questioning, the defendant and the accused were finally able to rest. I was finally allowed to take a leave of absence. I close my eyes to a couple of girls at the other end of the room and they’re all beaming. They whispered “well done” as I passed them on my way out. I smiled weakly in response.
Words cannot describe the relief it has over. I took a full breath for the first time in weeks.
This is an edited extract from ‘Ash + Salt’ by Sarah Grace, published by The O’Brien Press
Survival guide: test
ONEYou will see now that, even with the most obvious evidence, there are many areas where you can run into. So now, I want to summarize some of the elements you need to arm yourself into that war zone.
Decide if you want to bring people with you when giving your evidence: this is your decision, but you should be aware that it can make you unsteady to see their reaction. You will be asked very confusing and sometimes painful questions. They will also be asked to leave if they have any visual or audible reactions that might affect the judges. It may be easier to bring in someone removed, such as a companion from the Dublin Rape Crisis Center (drcc.ie/services/accompaniment).
The most important people in the room are you and the judges: look at them while you’re talking, make eye contact. Paint a picture for them, see their body language, and adjust your tone if you need to.
Whatever happens, stay calm and respectful: it will give you credibility and the jury on your side. The defense may try to upset you or ask difficult questions, but being defensive or aggressive will only turn the jury against you.
Don’t get thrown by procedures: Once the prosecution is made, Defense will cross-examine you. This is a formal process in which they “give” their arguments to you (e.g., “I told you you were confused about when this happened”). This just means that they are suggesting to you that their argument is correct. You should answer these questions with a “Yes” or “No” (and, if “No,” explain why you disagree with the jury).
Take note of Defense’s behavior: If the lawyer is aggressive with you or raises his voice, do not react. The less you react, the more stupid they will look to the judges.
Stand up for yourself and call for it: you might expect the Prosecutor’s Office to object, but they might not. If the Defense’s behavior gets out of control, call it out (respectfully). This is the nuke button, so don’t overdo it. You can say (very calmly): ‘I’m sorry, I’m a victim of sexual assault. Understandably I’m still very hurt and I find your body language quite triggering. Can you please stop [putting your foot on the bench]? ‘
It’s completely normal to feel vulnerable or emotional: Everyone understands how difficult this is for you. You can apply for leave at any time if you are too exhausted.
Communicating, not persuading: an obvious one, but stick to the facts. You are most trustworthy when you are yourself. There is no better excuse than the truth. So you want to convey information, not convince the jury about it.
Never guess the answer to a question: If you don’t know or aren’t sure, say so.
Don’t let anyone take your word for it: The defense often tries to get you to say something in their favor (for example, “I told you that you like the defendant to be progressive with you”). Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s not true,” and then revise their statement.
Notice when it’s intended: if Defense tries to ask you to comment on someone’s intentions or state of mind (especially the defendant’s), indicate that you cannot speak to that.
Speak slowly. You’ve waited long enough to be here, it’s time to tell your story.
If you do not understand the question, you can ask to repeat or clarify the question.
If a question seems odd to you, ask the examiner for guidance.
Don’t talk about the defendant’s character or past sexual history, just say what happened to you: this is ABSOLUTELY NEGATIVE as it can lead to confusion.
Don’t be afraid to (respectfully) argue these things: Just because you’re dealing with authority figures doesn’t mean they’re gods.
After it finishes, let it go: you did your best. You have no regrets and should feel extremely proud of yourself. Regardless of the outcome, know that you can and will heal and move on from this.
https://www.independent.ie/life/as-i-give-evidence-against-the-man-who-attacked-me-i-feel-heard-for-the-first-time-in-a-long-time-41436012.html ‘When I gave evidence against the man who assaulted me, I felt it for the first time in a long time’