Mayor Ed Murray, the politician, believes in second chances. He cut his teeth working as a public defender in Portland. As a state senator, he sponsored a bill shortening sentences for inmates with good behavior. Last year, he formed a committee tasked with making it easier for people with criminal histories to access housing. After all, nearly a third of adults have a criminal record and people of color are disproportionately imprisoned.
But Murray, the defendant, doesn’t hesitate to raise the criminal records of three men who went public with accusations that Murray raped and molested them when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Delvonn Heckard, who filed a civil lawsuit against Murray last month, is “troubled.” Jeff Simpson, who alleges Murray raped him when he lived in a group home in Portland, Oregon, “cannot be trusted.” (A fourth accuser who came forward this week says Murray paid him for sex, but it’s unclear whether he was under the age of consent at the time of the alleged sex.)
While most local politicians and media have avoided taking sides on Murray’s guilt or innocence—it’s a court case, after all—the mayor’s tactic of discrediting his accusers have been ripe for attack.
Calling for Murray to resign on Tuesday, Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant wrote that the mayor’s legal strategy is “almost the textbook example of why abuse survivors rarely step forward.” In response to an editorial Murray published last month, LGBTQ activist and survivor Danni Askini wrote, “There are no perfect survivors.” Even the Seattle Times’ Jonathan Martin, a member of the paper’s conservative editorial board, has said that Murray shaming of his accusers for their criminal records sends "a terrible message to victims of child sexual abuse, one that the Seattle establishment tacitly condones with its blue wall of silence.”
Despite the public distaste over the way Murray is handling the child sex abuse allegations, lawyers who work on similar cases say the types of attacks coming from the mayor’s legal team are common and unlikely to stop anytime soon. That’s despite a wealth of social research showing that victims of childhood sexual abuse suffer disproportionately from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lawyers who have worked with survivors of sex abuse also say that it’s common for those victims to be targeted because of their existing socioeconomic disadvantage—a confluence of circumstances that can often lead to a criminal record.
Survivors of sexual abuse are a “target rich environment,” according to Michael Gustafson, a lawyer with Emerald Law Group who has represented victims of child sex abuse. He notes that “powerful people” often target people from “broken backgrounds” and “minority communities.”
“And then years later, it gets turned around on them: This is somebody who came from a rough background,” Gustafson tells The Stranger. “Look what they became in life. They were preyed upon because they were in a vulnerable position in life and then that gets used against them later.”
Three of Murray’s accusers have all acknowledged their own criminal histories. The fourth is currently being held at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent on a $15,000 bail for a failure to appear on a drug charge.
In court, legal rules limit the circumstances in which lawyers are allowed to use criminal records in court. Some have questioned whether those rules should be changed.
“Too much of a person’s likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system is tied to their race, income and other external circumstances,” says Anna Roberts, an associate professor at Seattle University’s law school who has studied the way lawyers use criminal histories to discredit people accused of new crimes.
Roberts argues criminal convictions are not a reliable indicator of someone’s truthfulness and are skewed by disproportionalities in the criminal justice system. “You would hope judges as the drafters of evidence rules [which determine what’s allowed in court] would acknowledge that… What I found in the law nationwide is judges just clinging to these old assumptions.”
In Murray’s case, the court of public opinion comes with no such limits.
Darrell Cochran, a Tacoma-based attorney who says he’s handled child sex abuse cases since 1993, including some involving foster care and priests, says Murray’s response to the allegations is “completely in line” with alleged abusers he’s encountered in his legal work.
“You often see someone who is justly accused going on the attack in dramatic fashion to distract everyone from the facts,” Cochran says.
Along with raising questions about his accusers’ criminal records, Murray and his team have attempted to cast doubt on why it took them so long to come forward. Immediately after the accusations, Murray claimed that Heckard’s lawsuit is politically motivated, while offering limited evidence. The lawyer representing Heckard has denied political motivation, as has Heckard himself. One of the mayor’s other accusers, Jeff Simpson, approached an anti-gay pastor in 2008 but he says he didn’t know the pastor’s views at the time and was calling any pastor willing to listen to his story. The third accuser, Lloyd Anderson, now lives in Florida and says he’s “not political at all, any way shape or form.” Anderson says he has nothing against gay marriage, and Simpson says he doesn’t hold anti-gay views, either.
Murray’s team argues that Simpson bringing up the claims in 2008 was directly related to Murray’s support for gay marriage and that the case now is targeted at sinking his re-election campaign. Why else would they come forward now?
In fact, research suggests many sexual abuse survivors wait years to disclose their abuse. In one survey, about 21 percent of adults said they had disclosed the abuse within a month of it happening and 57.5 percent said they waited more than five years.
And child abuse survivors are likely to experience some of the life challenges faced by Murray’s accusers. People who were abused as children have higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders like PTSD and substance abuse. For example, one study found the rate of PTSD was 29 percent among men who experienced childhood sexual abuse compared to 4 percent among those who didn’t experience abuse. That’s nearly as high as the rate of PTSD among male veterans from the Vietnam era and higher than the rate among soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among women, 28 percent of those who experienced childhood sexual abuse reported “drug problems,” compared to 10 percent of those who weren’t abused. And those who wait to disclose their abuse are more likely to experience psychological distress and post-traumatic stress.
In his initial complaint, Heckard notes that he has undergone counseling. Another accuser, Lloyd Anderson spoke with The Stranger about how, lately, he has had trouble sleeping. Simpson has spoken about his own recovery from meth addiction.
“We’ve learned so much about sexual abuse in many areas, but there are some things about the nature of child sexual abuse that seem like we’ve made very little progress on at all,” says Becky Roe, a former prosecutor who worked on sexual assault cases in the King County Prosecutor’s Office before moving to civil practice.
Roe says she took a case a couple years ago in which a young girl who had been sexually abused by her adopted father. The jury, Roe says, “didn’t understand why the first time he touched her, she didn’t do something about it.”
“You try to explain to the jury, look… there was a relationship there that had many positive parts of it, particularly before the abuse started,” Roe says. “It’s not something that just all of a sudden a child who’s grown up with nothing but an abusive background and then there’s an adult who shows kindness, interest, and attention [discloses immediately].”
Similarly, a record of criminal activity or substance abuse is unsurprising, Roe says. A 2011 review of research found that, across various studies, survivors of childhood neglect and abuse, including sexual abuse, are more likely to commit crimes as adults than the general population. In one 1999 study, researchers interviewed 211 male inmates and found that 40 percent of them had been victims of childhood sexual abuse. (The criminal records of Murray’s four accusers take place mostly after they say the abuse began, according to public records, though most juvenile criminal records are not public and each man says he was a teen when Murray abused him.)
When I approached Murray’s attorney, Katherine Heekin for this story, she took issue with my framing. Other cases, she says, are not relevant to the specifics of Murray and his accusers.
“I don’t feel like the press is getting that,” Heekin said. “They want to lump [this case] into this known storyline of ‘people are attacking the accusers and that’s really painful.’ There’s the flip of this. Maybe it’s painful to people who are falsely accused. What’s the evidence of that? How painful is it to be accused of something you never did?” (Research on the prevalence of false child sex abuse allegations varies, but estimates fall between less than one percent and less than 10 percent.)
In 2008, Murray paid Heekin and a private investigator about $18,700 to attack the credibility of two of Murray’s accusers, Jeff Simpson and Lloyd Anderson, according to the Seattle Times and campaign records from the time. In the 1980s, Simpson told a group home administrator in Portland that Murray molested him and the police investigated. Prosecutors in Multnomah County “considered but rejected a felony third-degree sodomy charge” against Murray, according to the Seattle Times. The Times reports that representatives for Portland police and the state told the paper records in the case had been destroyed. In 2007, Simpson hired a lawyer to pursue a civil case against Murray but that lawyer dropped the case. Heekin claims there was also not enough evidence for this case; Simpson’s lawyer from the time said he believed his client but dropped the case because of the statute of limitations.
In a letter dated December 4, 2007, Heekin wrote to Simpson’s lawyer that Simpson’s past criminal convictions “reveal that your client is totally untrustworthy and will lie, cheat, or steal as necessary to get what he wants.”
Today, Heekin says defense attorneys’ use of accusers’ criminal records is “not unfair or mean-spirited or dirty tricks or anything negative like I feel you’re trying to portray it for lawyers to question the truthfulness of people involved in a legal matter. It’s common place because the law is a truth-seeking process.”
Gustafson, who has represented survivors of sexual abuse, says the mayor should focus on facts. “Actual evidence to combat the allegations,” Gustafson says. “That’s how the system should work, rather than attacking with a huge, broad brush everybody’s credibility.”
Askini, who last month called on the mayor to resign and handle these allegations privately, says Murray could have defended himself without attacking his accusers.
“The way to respond to allegations like this is to respect the [legal] process and reaffirm that when survivors come forward they should be taken seriously,” Askini says. “That doesn’t mean people should automatically rush to judgement, but people should take accusations of abuse seriously and [accusers] should not be attacked and discredited because of things that happened after the abuse.”
The prospect of being doubted and discredited, said the lawyers who spoke with The Stranger, contributes to people’s unwillingness to come forward. Roe, the former prosecutor, calls it a “clear deterrent” for her clients.
“It’s kind of a wonder,” she says, “that anybody comes forward.”