Utah rabbi who was sexually abused leads sensitivity training for defense attorneys

The training was based on Rabbi Avremi Zippel’s own experience on the witness stand.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel's testified in 2019 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 advocating for increased training for defense attorneys, saying they should have trauma-informed training just as prosecutors and the police do.

Rabbi Avremi Zippel felt traumatized as a defense attorney needled him with questions on the witness stand about the woman who sexually abused him, accusing him of being the aggressor.

On Wednesday, he faced 200 defense attorneys. And this time, he left feeling hope.

This class, a continuing legal education course sponsored by the Utah State Bar, had been months in the making, spurred by Zippel’s own experience during the November 2019 trial where he testified about the years of sexual abuse he endured as a child.

He told the attendees Wednesday that he expected Alavina Florrech’s defense attorney to call him a liar, and to accuse him of making up the allegations just so he could get in newspapers or see his face on TV.

But he didn’t expect that the defense attorney’s tactics would include trying to pin the abuse on Zippel, arguing he was the abuser and manipulator — even though he was just a kid at the time. The abuse began when he was 8 years old and continued until he was 18. Florrech was found guilty and is now in prison.

“There is a reason why that is so harmful,” he said. “We know that survivors of sexual violence, particularly child sex abuse, they don’t disclose. Why do people not speak up? It’s because of the shame. It’s because of that secondary trauma they live with. They live with that shame and that guilt every single day of their lives. Children who go through these experiences blame themselves.”

And when a defense attorney also blames a child victim, Zippel said, the trauma deepens. Even if it’s decades later.

For Zippel, a rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, that meant a trip to an emergency room a month after the trial when his chest was so tight he thought he was having a heart attack. A doctor who recognized him from news coverage of the case told him it wasn’t a heart attack — he was having a panic attack.

“Consider the reality,” he told the attorneys Wednesday, “that there is a way for you to zealously represent your client, to be an integral part of this justice system without re-traumatizing victims.”

The conversation, held remotely through Zoom, was at times contentious.

Oftentimes the panelists — which included Zippel, defense attorney Ann Marie Taliaferro, victims’ attorney Bethany Warr and therapist Ken Roach — didn’t agree on how attorneys could represent their clients and not traumatize alleged victims. Participants disagreed in the chatroom about what the legal definition of a victim is, whether the course was worthwhile, and whether social movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo had a place in the courtroom.

Zippel said he knew the topic would be controversial among the defense bar. There were times in practice runs with the other panelists, he said, when their discussions got pretty heated.

But it was important, he said, that the conversation was started and that the attorneys were listening.

“For me, the conversation filled me with a lot of hope,” he said. " I think, as a society, we are slowly developing the ability to look at systems that have been in place for decades, and see there are some very real sacrifices as a result of the system.”

The panelist did offer some tips to those defense attorneys.

Taliaferro, the defense attorney, said it simply: Don’t be a jerk.

“I don’t think you need trauma-based training to know it doesn’t get you anywhere to have a scorched earth, win-at-all-costs mentality,” she said.

The panelists agreed that it’s unlikely that a victim will go through court without being re-traumatized to some degree. Just retelling what happened can be triggering, said Roach, the therapist.

But Roach said attorneys could limit that by taking some simple steps like not standing too close to a witness during cross-examination, taking breaks if someone appears overwhelmed and being careful with their language to not directly blame alleged victims.

“A non-triggered witness is a better witness for both sides,” he said. “A triggered witness is harmful for everyone.”