“His words are weightless to me. You cannot bargain or barter the truth.”
It has only been a few months since I last wrote about a sexual assault case from Boulder, but yet another tragedy is under the spotlight. The quote above is taken from a letter the victim wrote and read aloud in court, but not in a trial. Instead, he agreed to a plea bargain offered by the Boulder District Attorney’s office in exchange for a more lenient sentencing recommendation.
Therein lies the dilemma. Can the criminal justice system simultaneously offer sexual assault victims closure and relief while providing defendants with the customary process afforded almost every other criminal defendant?
The background here reads like many — too many — case files that run across prosecutors’ desks. Jack Warmolts, a 22-year-old Air Force cadet, went to Boulder to drink with friends. He met his victim that night. Both were drinking. Both were probably having fun. The night did not begin with a violent, forceful assault. But it certainly ended that way for Warmolts’s victim.
They drank too much, they became separated from the crowd, and the two ended up having sex. Warmolts said it was consensual. But a medical examination of the victim’s injuries told a different story. Unfortunately, there is no story from his victim because she cannot remember that night.
She will remember the days, weeks and months that followed. From the woozy uncertainty when she awoke the next day to the panic that must have driven her to seek medical help and the sickening revelation that she had been sexually assaulted when she had no way to consent. And then the long, drawn-out criminal justice process that would force her to relive the same feeling over and over again.
Warmolts’s victim must live the rest of her life with those memories. She cannot escape her own mind. But she did look forward to reliving it all at least once. She wanted to testify at trial. She found the inner strength and fortitude to tell her story in front of a judge, jury, multiple attorneys, reporters and most importantly, her attacker. While he stole control from her that night, she wanted to retake it in the courtroom. But his plea deal takes that from her, too.
“I cannot deny I feel small and silenced by the plea bargain process. I was ready and committed to showing up to that arena … I felt powerful and I had purpose,” she wrote. “I wanted justice, and justice for me was far more than hearing ‘guilty.’ I wanted 12 people to make a decision about his actions.”
Her words are not about punishment. Warmolts will be sentenced in January and his plea bargain recommends one year in jail and 10 years of probation. He must file as a sex offender and will almost certainly be dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. As Boulder DA Stan Garnett, an experienced and respected prosecutor, said, “He agreed to what we consider to be a very tough and appropriate disposition.”
No, the words of Warmolts’s victim beg for something different. They beg to take back a piece of herself she lost that night. They call for a greater role in the process that provides the bookend to her ordeal. They ask for something the current criminal justice system does not — and possibly cannot — deliver: reclamation of the person she was the day before she met Warmolts.
She will have the opportunity to speak at his sentencing. She will have a voice. But can that substitute for being an integral part of convicting her attacker? For her sake, I think we will all hope so.