The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law

An English court in 1736 described rape as an accusation "easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, though never so innocent. "To prove the crime, the law required a woman to physically resist, to put up a "hue and cry," as evidence of her unwillingness. Beginning in the 1970s, however, feminist and victim-advocacy groups began changing attitudes toward rape so the crime is now seen as violent in itself: the legal definition of rape now includes everything from the sadistic serial rapist to the eighteen-year-old who has consensual sex with a fourteen-year-old.

This inclusiveness means there are now more rapists among us. And more of rape's camp followers: the prison-makers, the community watchdogs, law-and-order politicians, and the real-crime/real-time entertainment industry. Vanessa Place examines the ambiguity of rape law by presenting cases where guilt lies, but lies uneasily, and leads into larger ethical questions of what defines guilt, what is justice, and what is considered just punishment. Assuming a society can and must be judged by the way it treats its most despicable members, "The Guilt Project "looks at the way the American legal system defines, prosecutes, and punishes sex offenders, how this "Dateline NBC "justice has transformed our conception of who is guilty and how they ought to be treated, and how this has come to undo our deeper humanity

Vanessa Place is a writer and criminal appellate attorney practicing in Los Angeles. She has worked on the appeals of more than a thousand indigent felons, specializing in sex offenders and sexually violent predators. She is the author of Dies: A Sentence, a fifty-thousand-word, one-sentence prose poem; the post-conceptual novel La Medusa; and, in collaboration with appropriation poet Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms. Place is co-founder of Les Figues Press, described by critic Terry Castle as “an elegant vessel for experimental American writing of an extraordinarily assured and ingenious sort.”


I am a criminal defense appellate attorney. I represent indigent sex offenders and sexually violent predators, all on appeal from felony convictions in the State of California. I have also supervised or otherwise assisted a number of other attorneys representing indigent appellate defendants. All told, I’ve been involved in about a thousand felony cases. Most of my clients are factually guilty by virtue of their acts; all are legally guilty by virtue of their convictions. They are the very bad men, those who trigger the question, “How can you defend people like that, knowing that they’re guilty?” It’s an inevitable question, though the delay between meeting me and asking the question varies according to the questioner’s profile. The rich ask it sooner than the poor, the educated quicker than the unschooled. Other criminals usually don’t ask it at all. Fellow cons will be the first to volunteer to crack a baby-raper’s skull, but will never question the scumbag’s right to a defense.

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