By Roger A. Canaff, JD
Roughly 2000 years ago an itinerant rabbi gave a sermon about light. The right thing to do with a lamp, said the rabbi, was to let it shine, not put it under a basket. That made sense in a time where light after sunset was a luxury; hence the parable. And of course, in the spirit of parables, there are other forms of light, and other functions for what we know as light. Light illuminates, and in so doing exposes.
In 2004, a remarkable young woman with a disability shined a light in the form of a video camera on the pathology, hatefulness and pure evil of a man who, until recently, had been a sitting judge in Texas. The video shows him, her father, beating her with a belt in a breathtakingly brutal way, over seven interminable minutes.
I am using words like “pathology” and “evil” distinctly, although as the study of psychology evolves, the difference between what we might call mental illness and what we have historically called evil are blurring in ways that make people like me- prosecutors, and arbiters of legal blame- uncomfortable. But for now, I’m comfortable, perhaps recklessly so, with discussing the two separately. I believe the man is probably sick. I also believe he’s evil.
Millions have seen the video. Millions more, thanks in part to the appropriate “trigger” warnings that have been associated with it, have demurred. I watched every second of it, and more than once. The video’s subject is my job, after all; I have seen things far worse, but in many ways I haven’t seen anything quite as naked and telling as this. Because sometimes it takes a camera in the right place at the right time to truly expose what lies beneath far more facades of normalcy than most of us understand. A camera won’t flinch. It won’t turn away. It will simply record with passive silence, and in situations like this one perhaps its growing ubiquity in our lives is a positive thing. After all, it allowed a 16 year-old Hillary Adams to preserve something that is simply unbelievable to many- that a respected member of the judicial bench, a smiling, reasonable looking man, would nevertheless be capable of a vicious beating laced with profanity against a young girl with cerebral palsy.
You see, I have prosecuted and assisted with hundreds of cases where I knew the truth, but also feared I’d never be able to infuse a jury with the courage to convict. I never had proof like the kind Hillary possessed; the kind she had the wherewithal and technology to create. And so doubt would creep in at the edges, doubt fueled by myths that protect men like William Adams and his now estranged wife. Myths that whisper that couples like the Adams’ aren’t the types who could hurt a disabled child that way. Myths that education, privilege, community stature, the genetic accident of white skin, and other niceties can’t co-exist with methodological torture and wanton cruelty. Myths like the one William Adams is selling right now, that the issue was really “discipline” and that what the video shows “looks worse than it is.”
Ah, but then sometimes, in blessed fashion, a camera shatters the myths; a camera placed by an intelligent and desperate child who has learned, as many family violence survivors do, to predict the escalation of hostilities that leads to violence.
It was also Hillary’s mother, Hallie, whose participation was less violent but no less sickening. I’m glad that she has repaired her relationship with her daughter, and that Hillary has forgiven her. She’ll get nothing from me. I understand that I am running afoul of many domestic violence experts who maintain that a battered woman can be rendered powerless over years of brainwashing and abuse to where her own violence or failure to protect her children cannot be attributed to her in terms of blame. I am sympathetic to the dynamics that exist, and attribute the lion’s share of the blame to William Adams, where it belongs. But I draw the line on anyone who fails to protect their own children, regardless of what they are facing in another relationship. Hallie Adams’ explanation on Today was, to me, less than impressive. She calmly deflected blame by claiming victimhood herself and assigning an addiction to William. I’m sure this is accurate, but it doesn’t give her a pass where I’m concerned. She’s clearly not the primary abuser in the nightmare world Hillary navigated for so long. But she made choices that I cannot abide, and one of them was graphically showcased on this video with its own dose of profanity.
A five-year statute of limitations will likely protect both from criminal prosecution. Adams’ judicial career might be over, which would perhaps be the most just event he’s been witness to since that career began. There are many other ways to look at this case, Hillary’s courage and healing, and also the response to the video as Hillary is launched into a temporary but bright public spotlight. I wish nothing more than for her to live a full and happy life unencumbered by the evil visited upon her.
For me, though, the deepest value of what Hillary did by placing a running camera on her dresser and a scarf over the tell-tale blinking red light, was to allow a robotic, impassive eye to simply witness what far too many believe to be impossible. My friend and colleague Anne Munch once told me the story of a police chief in a small, idyllic Colorado town who was asked a typical ‘softball’ question by a reporter: “So, is this town a safe place to live?”
Rather than giving the pat and expected answer, the wise chief apparently looked at the reporter evenly and said what I believe might be the most plainly accurate thing that can be said about literally any locality on the globe.
“It depends on who you live with.”
A widely known child protection and anti-violence against women advocate, legal expert, author and public speaker, Roger Canaff has devoted his legal career to the eradication of violence against women and children. Visit Roger's website: www.rogercanaff.com