Last month David Albert Mitchell was sentenced to 30 years in prison for raping an elderly birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park. Not long after the crime occurred, I wrote about making a sort of pilgrimage to the place where it had happened and, more importantly, to the place where a woman had survived. That woman, now 74 years old, confronted Mitchell at his sentencing and cordially invited him to rot in hell for all eternity. She didn’t have to testify against him in court; Mitchell had already accepted a plea bargain, so there was no trial. But she appeared anyway, to tell him what she thought of him and to urge the judge, face to face, to “do the right thing.”
She sounds like a remarkable woman. Thanks to her, Mitchell will be in prison for a long time and hopefully, as the sentencing judge said, “he will never hurt any other person again.”
Well, better late than never, I guess. Mitchell had already had a busy career in sociopathy before he came to New York City. At the age of 18, he was charged in the rape and murder of an 86-year-old woman in his hometown of Jenkinjones, West Virginia. Acquitted of that crime, he was then arrested for raping a woman in her 70s, but convicted on a lesser charge. Next he was “suspected” in the death of a 54-year-old woman, but never charged at all. Then he went to prison for abducting his ex-girlfriend, but was released on parole.
I’d say it’s a tossup which is worse in West Virginia, the police protection or the court system. Both seem pretty crappy, if they don’t even allow a community to protect its little old ladies from a serial rapist and murderer.
Of course, West Virginia was hardly the only place that dropped the ball with Mitchell (though I’m definitely adding it to my list of states to avoid, where it joins Florida, Oklahoma, and both Carolinas). New York City’s public safety apparatus failed too. In the month leading up to the Central Park birdwatcher’s assault, Mitchell had compiled an ominous track record in the city. He menaced the same woman a week before attacking her, when she photographed him exposing himself in the park. A few weeks before that, he pulled a knife on a man in the park.
But none of that was enough to get him picked up and identified as a violent offender who had skipped parole in West Virginia months before. And who knows how many other people Mitchell attacked between his departure from West Virginia and his arrival in New York? There’s little reason to think he led a blameless life during that time.
I would like to know how this happens.
Or rather, I won’t like it; in fact I’m sure knowing will make me exceptionally angry, but I want to know. I’m tired of trying to figure out a logical reason that women are sacrificed in the name of due process or whatever glorious legal principle we’re upholding by letting someone like David Albert Mitchell roam the streets. If anyone with professional experience in criminal prosecution reads this column—and I know you’re out there, because ya’ll jump my shit every time I suggest women use force to defend themselves—can you tell me how this happens? It isn’t supposed to happen like this, is it?
After all, everyone who knew Mitchell feared him; no one in Jenkinjones has expressed any doubt that he was a killer, and he doesn’t seem to have been the kind of criminal mastermind who left no incriminating evidence behind. Yet for more than two decades he haunted the margins of a community, terrifying everyone and picking off the most vulnerable.
We’re pretty sure Mitchell killed two women; we know of at least three others who survived his brutality. And it’s reasonable to assume there are more. Mitchell was such a habitually malevolent person that after committing the Central Park rape, he went on to grope two other women on the Upper West Side the same afternoon. That’s a textbook example of an individual who lacks self-control. We couldn’t have stopped him any sooner?
Such gross official incompetence makes the Central Park survivor’s confrontation with Mitchell in court all the more remarkable. You get the feeling, looking at all the charges against Mitchell that had previously been dropped or fumbled or pissed away on technicalities, that she may have been the first person who had the wherewithal to stand up to him, and to the legal system’s demands.
Which is admirable; it’s always inspiring when someone whose life has been altered by violence dedicates their efforts to preventing more violence. However—and I’ve made this point before—that’s not a functional plan for ending violence. We shouldn’t expect the victims to do the heavy lifting for us. They don’t owe us anything. We owe them.
I’m sure the women Mitchell didn’t manage to kill feel lucky to be alive. I imagine they’re thrilled he’s going back to prison. And I doubt they’re waiting for him to apologize. But somebody sure as hell owes them an apology, and since I suspect the prosecutor’s office in Jenkinjones is incapable of issuing an apology without reducing it to a misdemeanor and time served, I’ll offer one myself. It’s too late to apologize to the murder victims, but to the women who survived Mitchell’s violence, I want to acknowledge that we screwed up, big time, and I for one am sorry.
I’m sorry, in a general way, that the universe randomly dumped such a huge load of shit on you. More specifically, I’m sorry that the society I live and work and pay taxes and vote in failed to protect you from an obvious threat. We should have done better. We should not have let that happen to you.
And here’s something else I’d like to say to anyone who has survived violence—regardless of whether you testified in court, or pressed charges, or even reported the crime: Thank you.
After all, we thank military veterans, who volunteer to go off and fight danger. We all acknowledge that we stand to gain from their sacrifices—what they risk, what they suffer. We do a miserable job of taking care of them afterwards, but at least we recognize their heroism.
Assault survivors don’t sign on to fight anything. Most of them are drafted on an instant’s notice into a fight they’ve had no preparation for. They’re given no time to plan. There’s no opportunity to seek conscientious objector status. When you come out of a fight like that alive, you have my respect. And my gratitude.
I don’t mean gratitude in some vague, Oprah-ish way, as if thanking survivors were a lifestyle enhancement project involving fresh flowers and improved digestive health. Nor do I mean, “Hey, thanks for sparing us the additional guilt we’d feel if you hadn’t survived.”
What I mean is simply this: Thank you for doing what you did, in the moment, to survive. Whether you chose to do it, had to do it, or did it unthinkingly. Whatever it was that got you out of a bad situation alive—fighting, enduring, lying convincingly—and however you felt about it then or feel about it now: Thank you for doing it. You did a terribly difficult thing and you did it well. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel otherwise.
Here’s why I’m grateful to you: When you preserved that singular bit of existence that is you, you also did something for me. It wasn’t anything you owed me; it was nothing I could ever have asked you to do. But I still benefited from it. Because I believe this world is a better place, for me and everyone else, with you in it. I believe that with all my heart. I’ve seen what happens when violence prevails and a parent or child or sibling is lost to it. It rips a hole in the fabric of the universe. It leaves an empty space that can never be completely filled, no matter how much healing takes place.
And if you’ve survived violence, you kept that from happening. That’s a gift for everyone else on the planet, and you gave it at tremendous personal cost.
Thank you also for taking the awful blind leap into a vastly different future than you expected. And for shouldering the burden of healing from the violence, which would be hard even if we supported survivors adequately.
To the hard-working, underpaid souls out there who are helping, I’d also like to say thanks. To the counselors and caseworkers, the doctors and nurses. To the law enforcement personnel, the prosecutors, the judge, and everyone else who did finally (we hope, finally) end David Allen Mitchell’s access to women he could harm. I’m very, very thankful that he’s locked up (I’d prefer seeing him turned inside-out with a buttonhook, but I understand the Eighth Amendment prohibits that). If he makes it through all 30 years of his prison sentence, he’ll be 73 when he gets out—coincidentally, the same age the Central Park survivor was when he attacked her. He’ll face another ten years of court-ordered supervision after that, which should make him 83 by the time we lose track of him again. I’m not entirely sanguine about the prospect of him on the loose even as an octogenarian, but at least he’ll be moving more slowly than he is now.
Unfortunately Mitchell is hardly the only predator out there. So I also have a request to make. Could we please try to do better next time? Police officers, detectives, DAs, prosecutors, social workers—please: Tell us how we prevent this.
If there’s something you need in order to do a better job of finding violent offenders and getting them off the streets, ask us. Do we need more funding for rape kit analysis? Are there legal loopholes to be closed? Are non-violent offenders clogging the prisons? Is the parole system out of date? You know better than we do what needs to happen. We want to help. Just ask us.