Former Court Official Confesses to Rape of Teen Prisoner, Gets Probation

Here's a horrific miscarriage of justice: Tony Simmons, a former counselor in the New York City juvenile justice system, pleaded guilty to raping a handcuffed 15-year-old girl in the elevator of the Manhattan Family Courthouse, and sexually assaulting two other teenagers in his custody. He was sentenced last month to 10 years' probation. He also has to register as sex offender.

To give you a sense of perspective, the 15-year-old whom Simmons raped in the elevator got 12 months in prison for filing a false police report. She says she was prosecuted for falsely denying that she knew who jumped her on her way to school. 

The judge who approved the plea deal tried to excuse the extraordinarily lenient sentence by saying that the prosecutor didn't object to probation. No objection appears in the transcript, but the prosecutor insists he objected during an off-the-record sidebar conversation with the judge.

The prosecutor, Amir Vonsover, says he held out for a one- to three-year prison term in exchange for a guilty plea. Even a three-year sentence would be a slap on the wrist for a confessed serial sexual predator who targeted helpless minors in his care.

That said, we shouldn't rush to blame the Vonsover for the light sentence. He probably didn't let Simmons off easy because of any secret fondness for rapists. The victim from the elevator admired Vonsover enough to name her son after him, so it's safe to assume she felt he was on her side.

Vonsover faced a strategic dilemma. If he offered a plea deal that carried serious jail time, Simmons and his lawyer might have preferred to take their chances in court. Vonsover probably agreed to a watered-down punishment because he wasn't sure he could get a conviction of the case went to trial.

That might have been a good call on Vonsover's part. Realistically, a jury might not have believed a black teen prisoner accusing a white court officer of rape with no witnesses and (as far as I can tell from media reports) no physical evidence. Simmons could easily have walked. He might even have gotten his job back. If Vonsover hadn't struck some kind of plea deal, Simmons could still be out there raping girls.

So, we're faced with a systemic problem. We can't shift all the blame to a rogue prosecutor or a lax judge. Prisoners are easy prey for unscrupulous officials because they're physically controlled and unlikely to be believed. The power dynamics are such that prison officials can rape inmates with near impunity. Predators like Simmons know it.

Maybe there's some way to retroactively stiffen Simmons' sentence.

Better yet, maybe the public outcry will motivate authorities to investigate him for other sex crimes. Simmons is suspected of victimizing many other girls over the course of his 16-year career. The guy allegedly kept a special stash of condoms and cookies at courthouse.

Unfortunately, it might just as difficult to get a conviction next time around. Sexual predators tend to have long histories of abuse. Maybe they'll need to try him for several crimes before a jury is finally willing to convict. It's not a foregone conclusion that a jury will reject the allegations of a prisoner, it's just that the odds are worse than they would be if the victim fit into a more readily sympathetic category. And it's tough to get a rape conviction based on the victim's uncorroborated testimony at the best of times.

It sucks that society has to spend so much money and time to get one dirtbag behind bars. But just going to that much trouble would send a message to prison officials who think they're untouchable.

It's possible that there are stronger cases against Simmons waiting to be uncovered. Maybe more victims will come forward now that they have some reason to hope they will be taken seriously. Maybe Simmons had accomplices or enablers. Rapists often do. Maybe these helpers could be unmasked and pressured into testifying against Simmons. Maybe he abused women on the outside, too. They authorities won't know until they look.

Hopefully, the outrage will motivate the City of New York to reexamine its policies and procedures to ensure that officials have the least possible opportunity to abuse prisoners. Are there enough surveillance cameras inside the courthouse? Is there a strong whistle blower program in place to encourage other officials to turn in their abusive colleagues? Are we screening and supervising juvenile counselors closely enough? Did Simmons' supervisors miss warning signs? An official inquest could help answer these questions.

One thing is certain, public outrage over prisoner rape is the first step towards ending the abuse. NOW-NYC is circulating a petition demanding justice for Simmons' three victims. Sign it.

[Photo credit: Bronze Age scale, by Dan Diffendale, Creative Commons.]

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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