Rabbi Avrohom ‘Avremi’ Zippel thought the worst was behind him. Twenty years after his former nanny first touched him inappropriately, a jury had found her guilty as charged.
But the 28-year-old faith leader wound up in an emergency room three weeks later, believing he’d had a heart attack.
The tightening in his chest didn’t surprise a doctor who recognized him from news coverage of the case. The diagnosis was a severe panic attack, but the patient disagreed.
“The case is over,” the Orthodox rabbi recalls explaining to his doctor. “He said, ‘That that’s not how this works. The wounds that are opened during a process like that, they fester and they sit, and they come and claim their dues, even weeks later.’”
Much of his stress stemmed from a strategy of the defense at trial: casting him as an aggressor who either manipulated or forced his caretaker to engage in sexual behavior. He had long blamed himself for the abuse and only realized in adulthood that he’d been victimized.
Two other survivors of sexual abuse attended the trial, and later indicated that what they saw dissuaded them from seeking justice in the courts.
“That’s problematic,” the rabbi said.
Prosecutors and victim advocates receive training on how to do their jobs in a way that will avoid causing additional, unnecessary trauma. Now, at the rabbi’s urging, a continuing education seminar open to those employees, as well as defense lawyers and others, will review just that.
“It might not always be possible, but we can still try for better,” said Monica Diaz with the Utah Sentencing Commission.
Diaz’s office and Utah’s criminal defense bar are hosting the two-hour training on May 19, in the form of a discussion among a therapist, a defense attorney and Rabbi Zippel. It comes as the #MeToo movement has drawn greater attention to how victims are treated in criminal cases, and to how the legal system should balance their rights against those of defendants.
The rabbi had expected grueling cross-examination at the trial, but defense attorneys for his former nanny, Alavina Florreich, went further, he said.
“We understand you have a job, and you’re fighting for your clients’ lives, and God bless you for that,” the rabbi said. “But you know, there are consequences to your words. There are consequences to the insinuations you make in a courtroom, specifically when you deal with someone who has a backstory like that.”
Defense attorney Chad Steur declined to comment on the case because Florreich is appealing. But he said defense attorneys in general ask questions based on facts in the case.
“Sometimes there are difficult questions that both the defendant and the victim may be asked,” he said. Steur said he wasn’t sure if he would attend the online discussion because he didn’t know what his schedule held.
Kenneth Roach, the clinical mental health counselor who will be on the panel, said there are practical reasons for a cautious approach to cross-examination.
“The more survivors feel like they are being disbelieved, discredited and threatened, I think the less likely it is that they will be able to accurately recall the events associated with the alleged crime,” Roach said. “I think it gets in the way of being able to get the facts to the jury so they can evaluate the case.”
Almost all survivors of sexual crimes blame themselves, he said, as they grasp for an explanation for what happened.
“It’s not difficult, if questions aren’t asked carefully, to kind of trigger that feeling and that just shuts people down because they already struggle with this belief,” he said.
At trial, Steur quoted Rabbi Zippel as saying he’d “pushed the envelope” as a child and sought out some encounters with his nanny, although under Utah law a child can’t legally consent to sexual behavior.
The defense attorney alleged Zippel, at age 18, forced Alavina Florreich to engage in a sex act.
Rabbi Zippel noted cases like his, wherein a woman is charged with abusing a boy, are rare.
“It presented a very unique set of circumstances, and I think the defense manipulated that in a most offensive and egregious way,” Rabbi Zippel said. “These questions pick at scabs that have been laying there for years, and you’re making this person bleed out in the courtroom in a way that you can’t see.”
Steur referenced Adolf Hitler in his closing argument in the case, a move Rabbi Zippel said was “despicable” but separate from the main issue.
Attorney Ann Marie Taliaferro typically defends those accused of crimes, but represented Rabbi Zippel at the trial and will join him as a speaker on the panel.
Taliaferro said the defense strategy confounded her and struck her as ineffective, but she didn’t find it to be legally inappropriate.
“There’s no way that they’re going to say that an 8-year-old boy was the aggressor,” Taliaferro recalls thinking. “But that’s exactly what they did.”
She noted victims in Utah have a right not to be harassed, including while in court, but defendants have a right to cross-examine them and point out what they see as falsity.
Taliaferro said she’s not certain where a line can be drawn, especially because each case is different.
“Can you do your job as a defense attorney and not retraumatize victims?” she said. “I don’t know if there’s really any answer, but it’s a matter of getting the discussion started and getting people to start start thinking.”