By Alice Vachss
Explaining how I came to join the League of Women Voters ought to require only a short paragraph but unfortunately, my background is never that straightforward.
In the eighties and early nineties, I ran a Special Victims Unit in the Queens (New York City) District Attorney’s Office. Being a non-political person in a political office, I only got that dream job by being the right person at the right time. The unit had been created as a showpiece for Geraldine Ferraro (later to be the first woman to run for vice president) and was only ever intended to take cases in the investigative stage. A few years later, the other district attorneys in the city started getting good press by creating sex crimes trial bureaus and appointing high-profile women to run them. I was the only trial-experienced woman sex crimes prosecutor working for the Queens DA and several of my trials had received significant press coverage. I had a lot of ideas by then about how sex crimes should be investigated and prosecuted, and I was determined, for however long they let me keep the job, to prove that we could do better.
My unit was so innovative that my tenure was always controversial. Many of the changes I made are now well-accepted -- like us being the first jurisdiction in New York (and the second in the entire country) to use DNA evidence at trial. Other changes – like prosecuting when the facts fit the legal definition of rape but not the public’s preconception of that crime – are still beyond the comfort zone of more conservative district attorneys. Similar to what’s happened more recently with the #MeToo movement, there was a strong current of public support for the work we were doing. For example, PARADE Magazine ran a cover story (02/26/89) entitled “Women Who Could Be AMERICA’S TOUGHEST PROSECUTORS” and I was one of the four women they named. Such support helped me keep the job for longer than I expected given the very difficult cases and powerful people we were prosecuting (including a predatory pedophile who had been named “Man of the Year” before we authorized his arrest.) But eventually when the DA I worked for retired, in the name of what he called “office reorganization” his replacement hired a different woman to run the bureau.
The controversy about my being let go, together with the recognition my unit and I had gained by then, landed me a book contract. “Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators” [Random House, 1993] was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year which in turn gave me a national and international speaking platform. There were ongoing themes to the keynotes and lectures I had the opportunity to present, including explaining what I call “collaborators” within the criminal justice system who for their own selfish reasons make it easier for predators to escape consequences. Another, which became progressively more of my focus as the years went on, was that all of our district attorneys are either elected or (less often) appointed by officials who were themselves elected. If we want criminal justice reform, we can get it in the ballot box.
For much of the time I’ve lived in Lincoln County, I’ve traveled for work. As gratifying as it is to have an impact on a larger stage, at heart I will always be most at home going toe-to-toe with the bad guys in a courtroom. From 2010 to 2013 I was the special prosecutor for sex crimes for the Lincoln County DA’s office. Afterward, I published “Sex Crimes: Then and Now” (the “Then” being my prior book and the “Now” being the prosecution I did here.) I wanted to contrast my very urban experience with this rural one... to prove the point that beyond local variations accomplishing justice means fighting the same forces and enemies everywhere. One of those, perhaps the central one, is the politics of prosecution.
The League has always been my go-to resource for information and especially forums about local candidates and issues. The reason it’s taken me so long to join was my misunderstanding the foundational concept of the League being nonpartisan. (I think you can tell by now that I tend to be very partisan on issues close to my heart and work. I believe there are heroes and villains in my field and I have strong opinions about who is who.) Several members of the League have been wonderfully encouraging, explaining to me that as long as my LWV efforts stay balanced and nonpartisan, the other parts of my work are mine to decide. The past several years have reinforced for me the vital urgency of providing the voting public with actual information and I am proud to share this work with you.