The George Zimmerman trial rocketed to the top of the headlines again with the revelation that a witness, deemed only witness #9 in the press, has accused Zimmerman not only of being a racist but also of having molested her for 10 years, from the time she was 6 until she was 16. (He is two years older than she is.) The defense repeatedly motioned to have the molestation testimony blocked, with no success. Now that the accusation is public, Zimmerman’s attorneys have signaled that they intend to try to discredit the witness, which most likely means running the standard issue rape defense strategy of putting the victim on trial to convince the jury she was asking for it.
The reaction to this news has generally been: It’s irrelevant. That’s what Jonathan Capehart* argues, reasoning at the same time that other accusations against Zimmerman—like his 2005 arrest for resisting an officer with violence, or the restraining order his ex filed against him for alleged domestic violence—are germane. That mentality—that sexual abuse is somehow less of a crime, or more of an anomaly than part of a pattern of violence—is totally wrong-headed.
In fact, accusations like these are completely relevant for two major reasons. The first is that, as feminists have been saying for decades now, sexual assault isn’t really just a matter of someone’s horniness overtaking him and causing him to pig out on a woman’s body as if he hasn’t eaten all day and she’s a piece of cake shoved in front of him. Sexual abuse is a form of bullying, a violent crime whose pleasure for the attacker is far more about enjoying their power and dominance over the victim than it is about sexual urges. Subsequently, sexually violent men tend to be more violent generally, particularly against people they believe are lesser or weaker. If you’re trying to establish that Zimmerman had it in him to hunt down and murder a teenager who is much smaller than himself, then a history of sexual assault does help demonstrate this.
Also: A lot of the prosecution’s case depends on establishing whether or not Zimmerman is a glib liar who is capable of viciously attacking people and then playing the innocent “who me?” card while insinuating that the victim was asking for it. Pretty much all men who sexually assault women have developed an ability to do this; part of the routine of a rapist is terrifying and hurting someone only to convince the community to embrace him after the fact and write off the victim as hysterical, a liar, or a slut trying to cover her tracks. We know that most sexual assailants are repeat offenders—indeed, this is what the accuser in this case is claiming of Zimmerman—which means they have a lot of opportunities to practice playing innocent and blaming the victim after they’ve committed the crime. If the prosecution wants to establish that Zimmerman is the kind of guy who is capable of assaulting and even murdering someone and then playing innocent victim, a history of cutting his teeth as a sexual assailant helps establish that narrative.
Correction, July 17, 2012: This article originally misspelled Jonathan Capehart’s last name.