19 | The Trial | 1993
When Sharon and I had visited her on Crete, I asked Nicole to please come home with us and return to Greece for the trial. By then she had retained a lawyer, and I suggested she just “let the wheels of justice turn” for the next months. Her response was,
“I need to stay here because I’m not sure the wheels of justice will turn on their own.”
Probably very wise.
And looking back now, I know that year in Greece for her was a very important and empowering one. She needed to face it without mom. She needed to not run away, to work through her relationship with P., to be with her friends and in the community that held her in the aftermath of the rape, and to bask in her great love of Crete. And many other things I'm not aware of as well.
At the time the trial begins, I’m working in Zagreb in a program for rape and trauma survivors of the Bosnian war.
I fly from Croatia to Athens, then to Chania, on Crete, where Nicole and her dad J. are waiting for me at the airport. From there we drive to Kalives, a small town near the tiny village of Tsiveras, where Nicole is living. J. and I check in to our rooms in a hotel on the beach. It is such a relief to have J. here to take care of things, me, us. I miss that. I so often forget that Nicole has a dad in her life. I forget that I have my daughter’s dad in my life. I think sometimes I shut it out because it hurts too much to feel the loss of our family. The loss of love.
Crete is so beautiful, so magical, so soothing. Nicole is doing well. Her friends love her, and the community, it seems, has embraced her and all she has been through.
The morning following our arrival we drive to Heraklion, the administrative capital of the island. We spend a few hours visiting the Archeological Museum. Ordinariness feels good; just a family seeing the tourist sights. Who would guess that we were there for the trial of the man who raped and almost killed our daughter?
As we approach the stately stone courthouse, I’m aware that Greece is the birthplace of western law as we know it. How surreal, all of it. Outside on the steps we meet with the lawyer Nicole managed to find. She is a lawyer, based in Athens, in whom Nicole feels very confident. She's a lovely woman, welcoming and straightforward, in her 30’s with a husband and young children at home. Nicole is completely at ease with her. J. and I quickly follow suit. The lawyer sits with us to translate and support us throughout the proceedings. Nicole, since she is a witness, and is sitting across the room. She knows enough Greek to understand the proceedings on her own.
The accused is sitting in a box the front of the room. He’s still a boy; he’s 18 now and was 17 at the time of the rape. He looks crushed with the weight of it all. I’m surprised by how little feeling he arouses in me. I expect to feel rage, hatred. But instead I’m oddly numb.
The 3 judges enter the room, all men, with the “president” in the middle. This is a different judicial system than I know. There is no jury, and the panel of judges will make the decisions. They announce the charges. Robbery first. We surmise that what most likely motivated the attack was Nicole’s receiving the $300 I had wired to her for a deposit on the villa. The accused lived in the same town as Nicole, and they knew each other by sight. It emerges that he had seen her in the Western Union office receiving the money. Second charge, rape. Third, attempted murder, for threatening to smash her head with a rock. He came terrifyingly close to succeeding.
There it is, the grim news - rape, robbery, and attempted murder.
Two witnesses are called. The first is the farmer who happened to be driving his truck down the road, from his farm into town, in the wee hours of the morning. Nicole had escaped the rock poised to crush her skull in the olive grove, and ran, naked, through a blackberry patch onto the road, bloody and injured. Miraculously, the farmer caught her in his headlights, stopped, took off his coat and wrapped it around her, and drove her to the military hospital nearby. He saved her life.
Nicole is the other witness. The circumstances leading to the rape are laid out. Nicole’s boyfriend P. was away in South Africa visiting his family. On her way home the evening after she picked up the money transfer, she stopped at a beach party hosted by friends. The young Albanian man, whom she knew casually, was there. As it got late, she needed a ride from the beach to the village, only a 15 minute drive up the highway. He offered her a ride on his motorbike. Nearing the village, he veered off the road and drove a hundred meters or so into an olive grove. He stopped, threw her on the ground, cracking her tooth on a stone cistern around an old well. He stripped her, took the money and raped her. She played dead, praying he would go and leave her where she was. But when she squinted up at him, he was holding a large rock over his head, poised to crush her skull.
Survival instincts kicked in, and she jumped up and ran through the blackberry bushes onto the highway. It was still dark in the early morning hours. Through some divine intervention the farmer and his truck rounded the corner at that moment and saved her.
I hardly remember the questions the judges ask her, although the lawyer translates it all for us. What I do remember is this. Judge “Why did you accept a ride from this Albanian person? Don’t you know that they’re all thieves and rapist?” Nicole “Your honor, I don’t choose who I associate with based on their nationality or race.” Amen.
The judges deliberate. It seems to me that it should have been clear cut. The defendant was caught the day of the rape hiding in some bushes near the ferry terminal, in possession of the $300. He admitted the crimes to 2 officials separately; the arresting officer and the warden at the jail when he was booked. Surprisingly, his plea is not guilty. However, the lawyer is not surprised. She tells us that during the year of his confinement he was briefed by various groups to plead not guilty. He was easily influenced, and in the end he denied any part in the crimes. His head was bowed throughout the trial – never once did he look at any of us. A scared kid mounting a weak defense.
The verdict is returned soon after the witness testimonies. Guilty of robbery, guilty of rape, guilty of attempted murder. Because he was a minor at the time of the crimes, he’s given a reduced sentence of 13 years. In the Greeks courts, as an illegal immigrant, he is to be deported after serving 2/3 of his sentence.
A wave of relief washes over us. I feel so proud of her and the way she handled herself. She says she’s satisfied with the sentence, something like; “Well I didn’t want him to go away for life, but I did want him to pay the penalty for what he did.” She hugs and thanks her lawyer. When we all meet after the trial, the lawyer tells us that it made a difference to the outcome that we, Nicole’s parents, were present throughout the trial. And especially that her dad is a “doctor.” She had introduced us to the court as the trial commenced. She explains that Greek judges often see foreign girls. travelling and living in Greece as girls with loose morals. You never know how this may bias their judicial decisions. It quite common for sexual assault charges to get dismissed for this reason. It’s more difficult to get away with that if the family is present in the courtroom. With us there she was seen as a valid human. Nicole comments later that had the perpetrator had been Greek, she very much doubts that the trial would have had the same outcome. Misogyny and racism was alive and well then, in Greece and elsewhere, and continues to be. I see now why she doubted that the “wheels of justice" would have run smoothly had she not stayed in the country, retained a lawyer, and invited her family to be with her.
The rest of those days on Crete are a blur. We play tourist some more, visiting the archeological digs at Knossos. We bask and swim on the beaches, meet Nicole’s friends for coffee, and eat seafood. I don’t remember where we were, and what we all said in our goodbyes. I do know that I leave assured that Nicole truly is well, and this, after all, is what I came for.