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Friday, February 24, 2023

Blaming Victims of Rape: The Omar Best Case

     In 1996, 18-year-old Omar Best, a product of the mean streets of Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to indecent assault and attempted rape in return for a light sentence. Fourteen years later, after being linked to the 1999 abduction and rape of another Philadelphia woman, a judge sentenced Best to 7 to 15 years in prison.

      Omar Best, in 2011, pleaded guilty to raping yet another woman in Philadelphia. This conviction brought him a sentence of 15 years. A year later, while serving time at the State Correctional Institution called Grateford in southeast Pennsylvania, Best sexually assaulted a female prison worker. Following that crime and breach of prison security, state corrections authorities transferred Omar Best to Rockview, the State Correctional Institution near Bellefonte, Pennsylvania in the central part of the state not far from Penn State University. Best was later convicted of that crime.

     At Rockview, notwithstanding Best's history as a serial rapist, he had access to the prison's central office where a 24-year-old female employee performed clerical duties. On July 17, 2013, the young prison clerk complained to her supervisor that whenever the 36-year-old rapist came into the office on the pretext of emptying the trash can she felt threatened and endangered. The young woman's complaint fell on deaf ears. Best, who had no assigned duties in the central office, continued to have access to the premises.

     At eight-thirty in the morning of July 25, 2013, Omar Best entered the central office and grabbed the young clerk from behind preventing her from alerting security with her distress whistle. He choked her until she passed out then sexually assaulted her for 27 minutes before prison guards subdued him.

     In May 2014, a jury found Best guilty of rape. Four months later, the judge sentenced the inmate to life in prison under the career criminal three strikes doctrine.

     Following an investigation into why this prison employee had been exposed to such danger, the head of the state corrections department fired Rockview superintendent Marirosa Lamas. Seventy Rockview corrections officers were transferred to other prisons. Rockview administrators moved the central office to a more secure location within the institution.

     The Rockview prison rape victim, in April 2014, filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department of Corrections, the victim's former supervisor, Best's cellblock manager and former Superintendent Lamas. The civil action defendants were accused of administrative negligence that resulted directly in the plaintiff's prison rape.

     The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office had the responsibility of answering the suit on behalf of the state. In his written defense brief, a senior deputy attorney general claimed that the "plaintiff had acted in a manner which in whole or in part had contributed to the events." [Events?] In other words, the rape victim, through her contributory negligence was responsible for her life-threatening ordeal.

    The rape victim's attorney, Clifford Rieders, reacted sharply to the state's defense strategy. He said this to reporters: "It's victim shaming at its worst. It's total bunk. It's throwing something out there so they can have it on record. They have no evidence of that. It has no substance, but it's just the way some lawyers litigate. It's insulting to women generally who face rape cases only to be told it's their fault." The local district attorney who had prosecuted Best for the prison rape agreed with the plaintiff attorney's claim of victim bashing.

     Following a firestorm of criticism, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office responded with a written statement that in part read: "This initial filing should not necessarily be interpreted as meaning the [contributory negligence] defense will be pursued throughout the entire case." The attorney general's office spokesperson also said that Attorney General Kathleen Kane had not been aware her senior deputy had included that particular defense in his answer to the rape victim's suit. (The suit was later settled out of court.)

      In 2014, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was indicted for leaking confidential grand jury information pertaining to a 2009 criminal investigation. She was later charged with perjury. In August 2016 Kane was found guilty as charged and sentenced to 10 to 23 months in prison.

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