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Prosecuting Rape Cases

Aired June 27, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


SECCURO: I was in the middle of the rape itself and my brain, I think the brain protects you from things that are too horrible to possibly absorb. And I remember saying to myself, you know, it's OK to go to sleep now. This is about -- you know, I can't even put a time on it, a few minutes into it.

And I looked out the window, and I saw a streetlight, and I remember thinking that I was going to die and that my mom and dad were not going to find me, that I'd be in this room. And I just said, you know, it's OK to just go to sleep, and that's what I did. That is the last thing I remember.

ZAHN: Liz says she woke up the next morning naked and bruised, wrapped in a bloody sheet. She reported the rape to the university and says she was told that the local police didn't have authority on campus.

The University of Virginia says they at the time offered to help Liz navigate the legal system. They also said that they explained that the incident could also be handled internally by campus authorities.

But before anything official could be done, William Beebe dropped out of school and Liz didn't pursue the matter. She graduated from UVA, but struggled in her adulthood with constant fear, self doubt and bad relationships.

To this day, she says, the nightmare plays over and over again in her head.

SECCURO: I'm seeing my hands in front of my face. I'm seeing -- I'm seeing so many different things. I'm just seeing the house that night. I'm seeing the friend that I went with. I'm seeing the person's face, you know. And that's the other thing, the thing that also happens which is really quite frightening, now that this is back in the forefront, five times a day I see someone on the street who I am convinced is that guy.

ZAHN: But Liz did go on. Two decades later she's happily married with a successful career as an event planner.

(on camera): So some 21 years later, Liz, you had moved on as much as you could.


ZAHN: You had gotten married, you started a successful career.


ZAHN: You had a beautiful child.


ZAHN: Then one day you go to the mailbox.


ZAHN: . and you receive an odd looking envelope with a vanilla scent on it.

SECCURO: Well, who writes letters anymore, you know? And I put it in my lap and I saw the postmark first that said Las Vegas, and I honestly, I don't know anyone who lives there, I said this is odd. And then I saw the return address sticker.

ZAHN: And you knew immediately?

SECCURO: I knew immediately what was -- my planet, my whole world, just cracked in half. I didn't even have to open it, I knew what it was.


MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, what was in that letter. The contents that cracked Liz Seccuro's world.

Stay with us.


MANN: How much can a single letter lead to? One piece of paper not only reopened a terrible wound from the past, it started a strange correspondence that would end with an arrest.

Welcome back.

Liz Seccuro, as we've heard, was happily married and raising her first child, and then things changed.

Once again, here's Paula Zahn.


ZAHN (voice-over): A simple trip to the mailbox, a seemingly innocuous letter. It dramatically changed Liz Seccuro's life. It was a letter from the man she says had raped her when she was just 17 and still a virgin.

After 21 years, it was a letter of apology from William Beebe.

(on camera): I'm going to read an excerpt from that letter.

Quote, "In October, 1984, I harmed you. My prayer is that you be free and happy in your life."

When you saw those written words what was your reaction?

SECCURO: On the one hand, it was validating, and on the other hand, I have been anything but free and happy in my life. And how dare you? How dare you write to me? I just felt like I was grieving at that time.

ZAHN: Are you sorry you ever opened up that letter and read it?

SECCURO: The personal me, there are days. But no, I'm not. Because I know that no matter what the outcome, I mean, this torture has to end at some point.

ZAHN (voice-over): But why after so long would this man reach out?

William Beebe would reveal later that after struggling with alcohol for years, he had turned to A.A.'s 12-step program. Step number eight: make a list of all the persons we had harmed. And step number nine: make direct amends to such people. Beebe also invited Liz to contact him anywhere, any time with anyone and so began a very unusual correspondence.

(on camera): So, Liz, as tormented as you were by the phrases in this first letter, you decided to start e-mail communication with William Beebe?

SECCURO: I had to.

ZAHN: Why?

SECCURO: I wanted to know why. I wanted to know who he was, what led him to this behavior. What led him to that night, to be that person.

ZAHN (voice-over): Beebe wrote about his tumultuous life after leaving UVA. An excerpt from one of his e-mails dated September 22, 2005: "I always felt a tremendous guilt for the way in which I imagined my conduct had damaged you. I did not know how I was going to set about repairing the wrongs I believed I could never fully right, most especially in the situation with you, which haunted me most of all."

And in an e-mail dated November 30, 2005, what appears to be an admission. "I want to make clear that I'm not intentionally minimizing the fact of having raped you. I did."

Liz says the e-mail relationship began to frighten her. There is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia. And she says there was no other choice. It was time to come forward and finally tell her story to the police.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Beebe, did you think the statute was up?

ZAHN: The result, on January 4, 2006, William Beebe was arrested at his home in Las Vegas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our most recent arrest for a serious sexual assault that occurred some 22 years ago.

ZAHN: This is William Beebe today.

SECCURO: He's had 20 years of freedom and I've had 20 years of being imprisoned in my mind. I've had 20 years of bad relationships, bad decisions, lack of self esteem. I've had 20 years of questioning who I am.

ZAHN: But this tale with all of its twists and turns still isn't over. William Beebe now denies that he raped Liz. We tried to contact Mr. Beebe through his attorney to get his side of the story and received this statement.

"Regrettably Mr. Beebe cannot provide details about a pending case. At the appropriate time, Mr. Beebe's innocence will be established in a court of law and any misunderstanding about the events in question will be put to rest. Mr. Beebe did not rape Ms. Seccuro. He treated her thoughtlessly in a college sex encounter, for which he is sorry."

But remember the e-mail in which William Beebe admitted to the rape? Why would he confess to a crime he didn't commit?

More from his attorney. "In their e-mail correspondence when Ms. Seccuro first described the encounter as a rape, Mr. Beebe did not challenge her recollection. Under the circumstances he considered that response inappropriate. In his reply to Ms. Seccuro's e-mails, Mr. Beebe sought only to avoid conflict, not to answer for a crime he didn't commit."

(on camera): Your reaction?

SECCURO: My reaction is that is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Beebe, can we get a comment from you?


ZAHN (voice-over): Last March, Liz faced William Beebe at a preliminary hearing in a Charlottesville court. He will be tried in November on rape charges.

William Beebe could spend the rest of his life in prison. Liz Seccuro says this is about justice, not revenge.

(on camera): So even if this trial ends in acquittal, you will have thought you accomplished a great deal?


ZAHN (voice-over): Liz knows what a jury trial might mean. She says that testifying at the preliminary hearing was devastating. She fears a trial will be even worse.

(on camera): Is there just a little part of yourself that ever says to yourself, you know what, Liz, it was enough that he admitted to me in an e-mail that he raped me?

SECCURO: You know what? The trauma of what I will face in the courtroom is nothing compared to the trauma of that night. I'm fine with it, you know. Bring it. You can't break me because he already did.

So whatever they try to do to me on the stand, I've already lived through 10 times worse. So, no, in answer to your question, no. There's no little piece of me.

The only part of me that's left is the part that fights for this. And I have to honor that part. I have a responsibility to that 17-year-old who didn't get justice to take it through. And it's not stubbornness or anger or resentment, it's just who I am. It is what I have to do.


MANN: Would a court case close a wound like that? Does it ever?

Joining us now to talk about rape and closure is Susan Lewis, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The story we just heard about Liz Seccuro is so unique, but I'm wondering if there is a profile, a picture you can draw, about the experience that rape victims have afterwards, even years afterwards. Do the women who suffer it suffer it in the same way?


There are many, many things that they have in common. To say it is unique, most of what I was hearing is often the voice of rape victims who explain their lives as my life before and my life after.

The crime is so devastating that they are changed in so many ways and the consequences both individually and socially are horrific and those long-term consequences, I mean, are well publicized out there for people to see.

But for an individual, the pain never goes away. They often learn how to function, but rarely do they get like it never happened. That's why many victims, we end up calling them survivors, because they survive but they carry the trauma with them in some way for many, many years.

MANN: What, if anything, helps them? Does time offer a measure of healing? Is there some kind of treatment?

LEWIS: Well, time can mean virtually nothing because if you have PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, those things can replay in your head over and over again, that what might seem like time heals all wounds, time doesn't heal all wounds, not necessarily, if you experience rape.

Now, there are things that, first of all, every rape victim is unique and every situation is unique, and so some people will choose to go ahead in the criminal justice system, some will not. That is partly because the criminal justice system can be a very difficult thing to do. It can mean the victim having to feel revictimized and, unfortunately, our criminal justice system doesn't always work very well for violence against women crimes.

MANN: When it does work, does it offer any solace?

LEWIS: I think justice is very important. Yes, it offers solace, and I think for many victims, what they can see, what they should know, is that it's also sending a very clear and helpful message to other victims who can see that there might be justice for them, because many victims are silenced even going ahead if they don't think that justice will be there.

It also sends a clear message socially that we will hold perpetrators accountable, and if that doesn't get played out in our justice system, what happens is that person has to absorb all of that themselves. So it can be -- it can be very helpful. Not all victims choose to do that, go ahead, but it is -- some people like to help other victims. Some people speak out publicly frequently. And many people go through years and years of counseling.

So there are ways to help them deal with it, but it has to be something that makes sense to the person, and justice is important, and you know, it is not necessarily about somebody getting back. It is -- justice -- we have a constitutional right to have crimes against us redressed, and time is not necessarily a factor in that, or shouldn't be.

MANN: Susan Lewis, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

MANN: We're going to take a break and then pick up on that very thought, rape and the courts and the calendar.

Stay with us.



MANN (voice-over): Actress Kelly McGillis starred in a movie about rape as an attorney for victim Jodie Foster in "The Accused." During production, McGillis made public the story of her own earlier rape by two men who broke into her apartment in 1982 and she became an advocate for rape victims' rights.

KELLY MCGILLIS, ACTRESS: I was in my apartment. There was nothing I did to encourage this to happen, but as many rape victims suffer the notion of punishment, of what did I do to cause this.


MANN: Welcome back.

We mentioned her because the men who raped McGillis also apologized more than a decade after the fact. They also did it in a letter issued by his lawyer on his way to jail for other rapes that he says he didn't commit. He said at the time of the rape of McGillis he was 15.

"I was young," he said. "I made a big mistake and I am sorry for what I did to her."

The actress has apparently made no public comment.

Joining us now to talk about prosecuting alleged rape and about regret years after the fact is Robert Gottlieb, the former New York prosecutor who now heads his own law firm specializing in criminal defense.

Thanks so much for being with us.

We began the program with the strange story of a woman who says she was attacked and then got a letter from her attacker years later, apparently confessing. Now, you're not defending or prosecuting this case, but what do you think is going to happen in a case like that?

ROBERT GOTTLIEB, ATTORNEY: Well, I think ultimately his defense attorney and the prosecutors are going to work out a plea. I would be very surprised if ultimately this case went to a full-blown trial before a jury.

MANN: Now that would happen as a matter of course in most criminal cases, they try to work out a deal ahead of time. But essentially is he going to get off easily because the evidence against him is weak? Or do you think they're going to treat that letter as a full-blown confession?

GOTTLIEB: Jonathan, the evidence against him I don't think is weak. We've seen clips of the victim here. She's going to be a compelling witness. His words are damning. His words in which he volunteers and says very clearly I raped you while his attorney right now certainly isd putting a different spin on it, that's what you would expect at this stage of the proceedings.

But I don't think the prosecutor would have all these years later decided to prosecute this if he didn't think that the evidence was overwhelming. So I think ultimately he's going to be convicted. He's going to be convicted either by a jury or he's going to be convicted after working out some sort of sentence bargain with the prosecutors.

MANN: Well, as someone who knows the business of prosecuting and defending criminals, are you surprised that he apparently tried to apologize?

GOTTLIEB: Listen, that's psychological, Jonathan. This is a very, very complicated case.

Why somebody all these years later would feel compelled to write a letter, you have to go deep within his psyche. So, typically you don't have people confessing to crimes. I don't think in his wildest dreams he thought that following steps 8 and 9 from AA he would wind up shackled and brought before the docket in Virginia. So, you're surprised, but perhaps he thought after all these years -- I don't think in his wildest he thought the statute of limitations would not have blocked a prosecution.

MANN: I once had a police officer tell me that most criminals he ran into really do want to confess, that they want to talk about what they did just to get it off of their just.

GOTTLIEB: You see, that's very interesting, because as a prosecutor years ago here in Manhattan, I was always amazed after reading a suspect his Miranda warnings very carefully, very slowly, I have often commended that I've been amazing how often those individuals then felt the need to unburden themselves.

So I think that that's true, but I think by and large people, after making statements, then do shut down. I think they've always minimized it. Even if they are going to confess they minimize their involvement.

So I'm sure all of these years there was a dying or burning need to confess, but everything else you would never expect after more than 20 years for him to come forward and say I raped you if he knew he would be charged with rape, facing life in prison.

MANN: More than 20 years, really, separates this case from most others. There would be a statute of limitations in most jurisdictions. Is that a good idea? Or do cases like this suggest that crimes should have no deadline?

GOTTLIEB: You know, it's very interesting. More than half the states in this nation no longer have a statute of limitations for rape. For years and years they have had no statute of limitations for murder. What the legislatures have done is they've said and are saying more and more that for the most serious crimes, there really is no logic to say that after a certain number of years you are on home base, you're free.

In fact, in New York, as you and I are speaking today there is a statute of limitations for rape, but the governor is about to sign a bill saying no more statute of limitations. But there is a reason why, people should understand. A statute of limitations was not to free a defendant. It was based on a constitutional recognition that if you are going to be charged with a crime, if you're going to have to defend yourself, beyond a certain period of time evidence is going to be lost. There is going to be a lack of witnesses. You will not be able to assert your innocence and have a fair trial. That's the concept.

MANN: On that note, forgive me for interrupting, we have just moment. If he'd never written those letters, he wouldn't be in trouble, would he?

GOTTLIEB: Listen, there is no way that a prosecutor after all these years would have just taken her complaint and have decided if he didn't have this very clearcut confession and admission.

MANN: Robert Gottlieb, thanks so much for talking with us.

GOTTLIEB: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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