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Can Bad Situations Have Happy Endings?

Monday, February 8, 2010, 20:44 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

There are very few circumstances under which the Den Mother has been rendered speechless, but this is one of them. I am blown away by a story I just read on CNN.com about a rape victim, the man she was absolutely convinced raped her, his equally absolute claims of innocence, and the friendship they are forging.

Dean Cage spent almost 14 years in prison for the October 1994 rape of Loretta Zilinger, who positively identified Cage as the man who attacked her. Years later, DNA testing not available at the time of the trial exonerated Cage and left Zilinger convinced the testing was wrong. But her husband, a former police officer, helped her come to terms with her new reality: that she had helped convict the wrong person.
Phil McGraw of the popular “Dr. Phil” show brought accused and accuser together when both were ready. It must have required a tremendous leap of faith on both their parts. Zilinger had to accept that Cage wasn’t the violent rapist she thought he was. Cage had to accept that Zilinger wasn’t the malicious liar he thought she was. Somehow, after so many years of hating each other, they have found a way to make things right and move on.

Zilinger and Cage are sharing their story to help exonerated people and victims who have misidentified their assailants. Most victims truly believe the exonerated person is guilty despite DNA evidence, according to experts who study wrongful convictions.

They plan to start an organization to educate groups about wrongful convictions and spread their message of forgiveness.

What surprises me is how understanding Cage was able to be.

The attacker, who has not been found, had ruined both their lives, he concluded. They were both made victims.

And remarkably, despite the fact that the man who attacked her is still out there, Zilinger finally has some closure, even though her case has been reopened.

For the first time since the attack, Zilinger no longer lives in fear. She feels at peace, like she has closure, and she wants to help other women reach that point.

“I realized I can’t always call myself a victim,” she said. “I have to start calling myself a survivor.”

Experts know that during times of extreme stress, the mind can play all kinds of tricks. I recently found this article from the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies that addresses the topic of how easy it is for people to “misremember” even the most fundamental aspects of something they observed. I recall a commercial aircraft incident many years ago in which eyewitnesses described flaming engines, but subsequent investigation and examination of the aircraft showed no charring, discoloration, melting, or any other sign of what multiple witness insisted they saw. On the other hand, in many cases physical evidence does corroborate eyewitness accounts. Such is the dilemma of trying to ensure the integrity and fairness of a judicial system that seeks to draw conclusions from different sources of information of varying degrees of reliability.

The story of Loretta Zilinger and Dean Cage evokes Boston’s notorious Fells Acres child molestation case, a case that in its later stages was mishandled by then-District Attorney Martha Coakley. Coakley, like Zilinger, just couldn’t seem to give up the narrative she had come to accept. The difference is that Coakley, like any prosecutor, is supposed to be more objective and dispassionate than traumatized victims or witnesses.

The case of Zilinger and Dean has a happy ending. How many others just like that one will never be made right?

Categories: law & justice
  1. Tuesday, February 9, 2010, 09:55 EDT at 09:55

    I do not believe the Innocence Project is taking into account that a good percentage of people in the population actually has 2 unique sets of DNA. It is a phenomenon that occurs when a pregnancy starts out as fraternal twins, but one is absorbed early on into the other. No one is ever aware that they are aactually their own twin. It causes no problem until someone takes a DNA test. That means that a man's sperm may have a different DNA from the tissue inside his cheek. I think this Innocence project may be putting some very guilty people back on the streets. It's already happened that some of them have raped again after DNA "exonerated" them. Not enough is known about DNA testing to use it this way. If it's a match, they are guilty, but it's not a match, it doesn't necessarily mean they're innocent. The tests have to be taken and tested from a number of different places on the body to be certain. This whole Innocence Project gives me a queasy feeling. If I were that woman, I would insist they test him in a whole bunch of places before they let him out. I am not convinced of his innocence.

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