This Utah rabbi, sexually abused as a child, wants defense attorneys to get sensitivity training

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) One year ago, Rabbi Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel's testified about sexual abuse he experienced as a child, which led to the conviction and prison sentence of his former nanny, Alavina Florreich. After hearing a defense attorney's argument that Zippel, as a child, was the sexual aggressor, he is now advocating for increased training for defense attorneys, saying they should have trauma-informed training just as prosecutors and the police do.

Rabbi Avremi Zippel had steeled himself as he took the witness stand to testify about how his nanny had sexually abused him for a decade of his childhood.

He expected her defense attorney to call him a liar, to accuse him of being an attention seeker who wanted to be a “#MeToo” celebrity at the height of the movement when people were sharing their stories of being sexually assaulted and harassed.

But what actually happened, he said, was worse. Alavina Florreich’s attorney had tried to pin the abuse on Zippel — arguing he had been the sexual aggressor.

The abuse began when he was 8 years old and continued until he was 18.

The accusation was traumatizing, Zippel said, because most young victims like him spend their childhoods blaming themselves for the abuse they endured. Only through therapy later in life was he able to understand that he was victimized by an adult he trusted.

“I was prepared for it to get brutal,” he said. “Tell me I’m a liar. Tell me I made it up. Tell me I did it for the media attention. Tell me I did it for any sort of reason, poke holes in my memories. Fair game. But don’t re-harm me. Don’t use the judicial system to literally redo that cycle of abuse.”

A year has passed since that trial ended. Jurors convicted Florreich of seven felonies and the 71-year-old woman was sentenced in March to spend at least 25 years in prison.

A jury had believed Zippel, and his testimony put his abuser behind bars. But the 29-year-old rabbi said he’s spent this year with a nagging feeling, mentally replaying the way the defense attorney had accused him of preying on his nanny and twisted his words to the police to imply that he had abused her.

Defense attorney Chad Steur had pressed Zippel, accusing him of “pushing the envelope” from the very beginning, when he was 8 and Florreich had guided his hand down her shirt and onto her breasts.

“You said you wanted it to happen?” Steur asked during cross-examination.

“On some occasions, yes,” Zippel responded.

“You said, ‘I pushed for it to happen?’ ” the attorney asked.

“On some occasions,” Zippel replied, “yes.”

Utah rules prohibited Steur from arguing to a jury that Zippel consented to sexual activity, because children cannot legally consent to sexual contact. But the defense attorney instead implied that Zippel was the aggressor, and outright accused him of assaulting Florreich during an encounter where she performed oral sex on him when he returned home from school as an 18-year-old and a legal adult.

“He [had been] counting down the days,” Steur argued to the jury. “That’s what a predator does.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Zippel has agreed to be named.

As Zippel, a rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, recounted those memories recently, reliving how traumatic those words were, he worried that aggressive tactics like this by defense attorneys could harm other victims or deter a child sex abuse survivor from coming forward.

He said, “We’re literally subjecting them to the trauma they’ve subjected themselves to for so many years."

He thought about how police officers and prosecutors have received special training to ensure they aren’t re-traumatizing victims. Why can’t defense attorneys do the same?

But implementing that sort of change isn’t simple.

State Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he thought of sponsoring legislation — but determined that a change would likely have to happen within the judicial branch, not through legislation.

“What happened to Rabbi Zippel was disgraceful,” Thatcher said. “In this instance, the outcome of the case isn’t the point. It’s sending a message to victims that you can and will be savaged.”

Thatcher said he understands the guilt and weight that children carry when abused because he was a victim himself. As an 11-year-old, Thatcher said, he was cutting through a field to get to school when a stranger approached. He said he tried to ask the man if he needed help, but the man told him he wanted his clothes and grabbed him. Thatcher yelled and fought the man off, but not before the stranger had ripped the zipper off his pants. The man was never caught.

Thatcher said that he, like Zippel, struggled as a kid questioning whether what happened was his fault. Why did he talk to the man? What if he could have ran away faster?

“I never talked about it,” he said. “I never got help. Within six months, I started suffering from crippling, chronic depression that lasts now into this day. I struggle with suicidal ideations and depression. I can’t help but think if we had known better back then, if I had been able to get help back then, it would have changed further harm and injury.”

There have been some discussions between advocates and attorneys about implementing trauma-based training for defense attorneys, and Utah Sentencing Commission Director Monica Diaz said they hope to create a continuing legal education training course that will be available in early 2021.

Steur, the attorney who cross-examined Zippel, declined an interview request, saying he couldn’t speak because Florreich is appealing the verdict. He did write in an email that “a trial is a search for truth, and our adversarial system is the mechanism for that determination.”

Steve Burton, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it’s a tricky balance because the role of defense attorneys is to zealously represent their client, and sometimes that means asking hard questions. Without that adversarial process, he said, those who will suffer the most are people falsely accused of crimes.

He noted a case he recently handled in which a woman had reported that her father had sexually abused her as a child. The father denied the allegations, and the case was eventually dismissed after it became clear her report was likely false. But to get to that point, Burton said he needed to ask uncomfortable questions.

“I had to get pretty aggressive about her issues dealing with mental illness,” he said. “I had to ask her questions about certain feelings of guilt. I tried to do it respectfully, but those questions had to be answered to show that there were mental health reasons and life experiences that made it much more likely that these allegations are false.”

Burton said there are already accommodations available for alleged victims in the courtroom, such as hearings held in advance of trial to set boundaries on what can be discussed in front of jurors and what’s off-limits. Prosecutors and judges are usually fiercely protective of victims, he said, but conceded some of those protections could have been better utilized in Zippel’s case.

The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is not opposed to additional sensitivity training, Burton said, because it not only will help lawyers in handling victims on the witness stand, but it could also help them to be better advocates for their clients if they better understand that trauma. Making such training mandatory could prove to be problematic, he said, since any licensed attorney can represent someone in a criminal case, even if it’s not the lawyer’s primary practice.

“When society perceives somebody as a victim, they are extremely protective of that person,” he said. “From a defense attorney’s perspective, you don’t want to appear to a judge or jury as though you are abusive. [Learning] how to ask appropriate questions or less traumatic questions, I think, is great. And there may be some benefit to that training, especially if it includes knowing true signs of trauma and feigned signs of trauma.”

Zippel said he believes some change is needed so that victims can be assured they won’t be further traumatized when they report these sorts of crimes. At his trial, two teenagers he knew came to the courthouse and watched, contemplating whether they were ready to report their own abusers to the police. After seeing how Zippel was treated on the witness stand, they left horrified.

“It really bothered me that we have a system that allows that,” Zippel said. “It bothered me for the kids that might want to come forward, and know that’s awaiting them on the other end. That might shame them back into silence.”