Nine Occidental students and politics professor and Department Chair Caroline Heldman attended Dr. Patricia Esparza’s probable cause hearing last Wednesday to express support for victims of sexual assault. Esparza has been charged with special circumstances murder for the murder of the man who raped her nearly 20 years ago. If convicted, Esparza could face life in prison. Heldman and multiple Occidental students have spoken out in defense of Esparza and are calling on the Occidental community to do the same.
Prior to her indictment, Esparza reached out to Heldman hoping to increase awareness on college campuses about sexual violence, according to Heldman. Shortly thereafter, Heldman created the campaign Set Patricia Free, which contains recent news updates, more information about Esparza and other resources for helping Esparza’s case. Twitter users can spread awareness by using the hashtag “#setpatriciafree;” there is also a Facebook group with the same name. Project Hope Geneva, which is the international version of Set Patricia Free, created a Change.org petition to withdraw the murder charges against Esparza.
Esparza’s case has attracted both national and international media attention since it began last fall. Esparza, who was sexually abused by her father as a young girl, went on to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and Pomona College. While at Pomona in 1995, a man named Gonzalo Ramirez allegedly raped her. Esparza went to the school nurse, who sent her away with emergency contraception and marked her case as “unprotected sex.” Ramirez was subsequently murdered after Esparza told her ex-boyfriend about the rape, according to Heldman.
“I have looked at all the documents in this case and I can say without any reservations that she had nothing to do with planning the murder,” Heldman said in a phone interview.
Sociology major Cassie Shultz (sophomore), who attended Wednesday’s hearing, stated that Esparza’s circumstances resonate with Occidental’s and other colleges’ attitudes regarding sexual assault on campus.
“There are colleges where the nurse would probably do the same thing that the Pomona nurse did to victims of sexual assault by sending them on their way with no reassurance that [what happened] was a crime,” Shultz said.
Heldman similarly saw parallels between the handling of Esparza’s assault and the way schools handle sexual assaults today.
“I’m passionate about this case because I looked at the facts and it seems to me a very clear example of what happens when schools don’t properly handle sexual assault,” Heldman said. “This case highlights the long-term ramifications when institutions don’t listen to survivors. But I’m heartened to see a new generation of students rally behind [Esparza]. It’s incredible and inspiring to see.”
Sociology major Kelsey Boyle (sophomore), also at Wednesday’s hearing, encouraged fellow students to find ways to become involved with Esparza’s case.
“It is important that the Oxy community be aware of this case because Oxy is filled with many passionate people who advocate for justice, and I think that our campaign and Patricia’s case would benefit from their support,” Boyle said in an email.
Last Wednesday’s proceedings lasted about two-and-a-half hours, during which the prosecution brought in and questioned three witnesses in order to establish probable cause for the murder.
It is still unclear why the district attorney reopened the case and brought charges against Esparza. Additionally, the prosecution in this case seems to contradict itself by at once calling into question whether Esparza was raped, yet simultaneously using the rape as a motive for the murder, Heldman said.
The most shocking element of the hearing for both Shultz and Heldman was the language used when talking about the rape itself.
“Whether she was raped is not in question, yet in the courtroom, you wouldn’t know that,” Heldman said. “The first detective described the rape then ended by saying that since [Esparza] couldn’t overpower [Ramirez], she ‘consented to sex.’ It produced an audible gasp in the courtroom. The second detective then stated that Esparza ‘allowed Gonzalo to rape her.’”
Occidental students present at the hearing as well as others in solidarity with Esparza demonstrated visible shock at such language, according to Shultz. Shultz, who first learned of the case while taking Heldman’s Politics 101 class last fall, has worked closely on the case since Thanksgiving. Shortly after Shultz became involved, Esparza was taken into custody after being deemed a flight risk.
“This case is a perfect example of how rape culture can insidiously wind its way into the justice system,” Shultz said. “There seems to be an instinct to question what she was doing wrong, how this is her fault—it’s the victim-blaming rhetoric that is so common. Right after the hearing, we were outside courtroom standing in a circle commenting on how uncomfortable it made us feel, how casually [that language] was accepted.”
For Heldman, who founded the survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, the language used at Wednesday’s hearing nevertheless surprised her.
“It was an illuminating experience, and it made me very uncomfortable to hear such a retrograde attitude from the mouths of law enforcement officers,” Heldman said.
The trial date for Esparza has not been set, though it will likely occur in late March. Students interested in contributing their voices to Esparza’s defense can join the Facebook page for updates, sign the Change.org petition, contribute to her legal defense fund and also attend Esparza’s trial when the date is set.
“I hope that the support for the campaign continues to grow until so many people are standing in solidarity with her that the case and the fact that there is no basis for a murder charge cannot be ignored,” Boyle said.
As a visible sign of support, students who attended the hearing have also been wearing purple ribbons. Students may also write to Esparza and visit her in jail, as Shultz has.
“Survivors see the message that they can’t trust the justice system—they would be blamed, scrutinized,” Shultz said. “I hope that we can come to the point where it wouldn’t be a point of contention that sexual assault occurred.”