In today’s Trumpian world, everything is politics and spin.
Facts are malleable.
So when a 19-year-old legislative intern accused 38-year-old former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, of raping her last year, the defense became one of obstinance.
He was a stand-up guy. A conservative. A veteran.
She was a “honeypot.” An opportunist.
Regardless of what she said, their sexual encounter was consensual.
On his side were members of the GOP House fringe, including the morally bankrupt Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird.
They said the intern was part of a “blatant liberal smear job.”
In short, it was fake news.
And, as far as they were concerned, if his reputation was going to be dragged through the mud, so should the intern’s — whose image, name and background were exposed on social media by Giddings and a right-wing website.
When the House ethics committee found him guilty of “conduct unbecoming” a state lawmaker, it was merely another example of the establishment swamp in action.
Giddings offered the same argument following her censure by the House. She claimed it was being orchestrated by her opponent in the GOP primary election for lieutenant governor, House Speaker Scott Bedke.
That was good enough for 18 House Republicans, who last year stood by Giddings. Among them were Mike Kingsley of Lewiston, Heather Scott of Blanchard, Dorothy Moon of Stanley and Ron Nate of Rexburg.
But a strange thing happens inside a courtroom.
A jury is screened to rule out bias.
A judge rules on the law and maintains discipline — both inside the courtroom and outside.
Witnesses are examined and cross-examined.
The prosecution must prove each and every element of a crime.
The rules of evidence are observed.
The defendant has a presumption of innocence and is under no obligation to testify in his defense.
In this environment, your political pedigree doesn’t matter. Political maneuvers and self-serving statements repeated for effect are jettisoned.
In their place are facts.
And in the trial of von Ehlinger, here were some of the facts:
- The complaining witness refused to complete her testimony, so the case proceeded without her. In a sense, that may have established a useful blueprint — how to successfully prosecute a case of sexual abuse without subjecting the victim to an intimidating courtroom appearance.
- A nurse at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, Ann Wardle, established the intern sought medical treatment two days after the incident. Wardle repeated what the victim told her. She noted that the intern had a goose egg on her head, which was consistent with her story of striking the wall or headboard while trying to break free of von Ehlinger’s grip. And she reported collecting semen from the woman’s stomach, which was from von Ehlinger and, again, shored up the intern’s version of events.
- Boise police testified that they interviewed the intern two days after the incident and collected evidence.
- The intern’s mother painted a portrait of a young woman who was “very independent, strong, confident” — “or she was” — before the incident.
- Boise State University criminologist Laura King outlined patterns of behavior among sexual assault victims, including delaying taking their report to authorities “for days, weeks, months or years” because they fear either not being believed or being blamed.
“They may not be able to think rationally because of the hormones that are released in the brain,” King said.
And finally, there was von Ehlinger himself.
Taking the witness stand, the defendant described how he asked her out: “She was flirting with me, so why not?”
Eleven hours of deliberation later, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of rape and not guilty of sexual penetration with a foreign object.
In this Trumpian era, it’s possible to shout down the facts with decibels and repetition. Everything is tribal.
Those elements may be with us indefinitely.
But in the von Ehlinger case, the legal system did not flinch.
In the process, it showed who had the facts on their side — and exposed those who were posturing for political effect.
For now, at least, the criminal courts remain a check on the excesses of our times. — M.T.
Marty Trillhaase is the opinion page editor of the Lewiston Tribune, where this editorial originally appeared