Mr. Speaker, I want to talk today about a person, a person that I never got to meet, but this is her story, and this is her story from her point of view and the information that I have received from people who knew her, including her parents, her aunt, and some of her friends. And, like I said, I don't know the real facts of this case.
I am just giving you my opinion, and I am here today to tell Megan Rondini's story, because she can't tell her case, Mr. Speaker. I am co-chair of the Victims' Rights Caucus, along with the gentleman from California (Mr. Costa), my friend.
I was a former prosecutor in Houston, Texas, for 8 years. I tried felony cases. And then I was a criminal court judge for 22 years, seeing all kinds of violations of the law.
I mention that because that is the background from which I speak. Over that time, I knew a lot of victims of crime.
Too many victims of crime worked their way through the courthouse. I am going to talk about another one today: Megan Rondini.
She was 19 or 20 when she was a student at the University of Alabama, and on July 1, 2015, Megan and some of her friends, sorority friends, went to a nearby bar, as we would term it in the old days, where a lot of students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, went for meeting other folks and hanging out. She came in contact with an individual whose name was Terry Jackson Bunn, Jr.
His nickname was Sweet T. Sweet T--being from the South, you can understand somebody being called that, Mr. Speaker.
He was a patron of this establishment. He was older. He was in his early thirties.
Megan was approximately 20. He invited her to go over to his house, to look at his house, because he and his family live in a big mansion in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
She agreed to go. He went with another individual that he knew, and they went over to his house.
They go upstairs, and here is where the problem and the crime apparently started. He takes her into his bedroom.
She says: This is not a good idea. She may have been intoxicated, but apparently later during that evening, she is drugged or under the influence of drugs and really was not coherent during this time, according to her, later.
He sexually assaulted her. She did not consent. She did not consent.
And she, from that day on, told everybody who talked to her about this case she did not consent. He had sexual intercourse with her.
He falls asleep on the bed. She gets up. She tries to get out of this upstairs room.
There is a dead bolt on the door, apparently. She couldn't get out.
She couldn't figure out how to get out, so she climbs out the second-story window in the middle of the night and jumps from the second-story window to a trash can on the ground. She doesn't have her keys. She didn't know where they are.
So his car is parked there, a Mercedes, sleek Mercedes, which he picked her up in earlier. She gets in the car, looks for her keys.
She doesn't have any money, so she takes money out of the vehicle to call a cab, to pay for the cab so she could get away, and the cab later shows up. During this time, she is texting her friends, asking for them to come get her.
The text messages maybe didn't make a whole lot of sense because of the condition that she is in. She eventually gets to the hospital, the place where sexual assault victims usually go first to get medical attention.
She goes to the hospital there in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and while there, she told her story, even though she was somewhat still under the influence of drugs, probably.
And while there, a Women and Gender Resource Center advocate shows up at the hospital. The hospital people take what we call in the vernacular in law enforcement, as you used to be, a rape kit. It is called a sexual assault kit now.
They take that sexual assault kit and they perform that examination, but they didn't take any blood and they didn't take any urine and they didn't test Megan for whether she was under the influence of drugs. They did the sexual assault kit.
Along the route, the sexual assault kit gets to the sheriff's department, and we don't know what happened to it after that. It was never tested.
As far as I know, it hasn't been tested yet. They don't know where it is. Maybe the sheriff's department has it, maybe they don't, but that sexual assault kit, like I said, was never tested.
So after she is there, or while she is there, the police, the sheriff's department show up and they question her briefly. It appears that these two homicide detectives heard her story, and they didn't take any notes about it.
They just listened to her story. What transpired there maybe was not a lot of information given to the police, except she told her story.
She told the police she didn't consent, that she may be under the influence of drugs, drug-induced rape, and they left. The next morning, Megan, staying up all this time, the police, either at the first or the second interview, wanted to know why she didn't physically resist, why she didn't fight back this older man.
And she was under the influence of drugs. Under most laws in most States, she couldn't physically fight back, and that is the lack of consent.
She didn't give consent. And it is still sexual assault, but apparently not so to the sheriff's department in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
She didn't fight back. Now, I am older than you are, Mr. Speaker, but I remember the days of these old, archaic rape laws where, in many States, the victim had to fight almost until death.
The statutory limitation on sexual assault or rape was 1 year. That is when the victim only had a year to have that case indicted.
And there are some other things about the old law that we both know, but I will get to that, hopefully, later. But it was obvious to her, either at the first interview and at least the second interview, the sheriff's department did not believe her.
When she told them who the alleged perpetrator was, Sweet T Bunn, they seemed to back off the prosecution. Sweet T Bunn comes from a family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, well-known, prominent citizens. The Bunn folks run a construction company, probably built every road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Everybody knew who they were. And they backed off, according to her, of the investigation, still not taking, apparently, any real notes.
On the second interview later that morning with the police, the police started accusing her of committing a crime. So the victim no longer is the victim, but becomes the accused, the defendant, about the money that she took from Bunn's car so she could get a cab to flee the perpetrator. The police interviewed TJ Bunn.
He first denied she was ever at his mansion, and then later he changed his story, as accused individuals tend to do, and then said it was consent, that she consented to everything and that this is not a criminal case. And the police further backed off and then later said to Megan: We think we are going to prosecute you for theft of that money to get home and get away from the offender unless you drop the charges, the accusations against Sweet T. Mr. Speaker, we need, as a community, to understand and put ourselves in the place of this girl who is alone.
And I believe, all through that night, she made the best decisions she could to get help, and everywhere she turned, people turned her down. Now, I don't know what most victims would do in this case, but she didn't know what to do.
She called her mom in Austin, Texas. Mom quickly gets in her car and starts driving to Alabama, as mothers do, wanting to know how she should handle this particular situation: she is becoming the accused.
And that is the trump card that the police put on her: You back off the prosecution, and we won't prosecute you for theft and maybe other crimes that you committed. So Megan left, not knowing what to do.
So the sheriff's department doesn't believe her, doesn't want to believe her, and takes the alleged perpetrator and makes him the victim and makes her the accused individual. So the sheriff's department has the rape kit--never tested.
The sheriff's department is accusing the victim of committing a crime. So she seeks relief from the University of Alabama.
She goes there and she talks to a lady who was a counselor for students at the University of Alabama, a female, and tells her the whole story again: No consent; I was sexually assaulted. After the story is told to the counselor, the counselor apparently says: I can't help you.
I know the Bunn family. I have a relative that works for Bunn Construction.
I cannot help you, and I am backing off and recusing myself of this case--the counselor. What does Megan do?
Well, the university gives her another counselor, who I wouldn't say is a real counselor. It is a graduate assistant. And the graduate assistant talks to Megan and says: “I can't talk to you until you take medication for your anxiety.”
Well, no kidding she has anxiety because of what has happened to her over these several hours. And that was the last we heard of the University of Alabama physical therapist.
She backs off because she has anxiety. The district attorney, eventually, about 3 weeks later, said: We are not prosecuting this case.
No case, no sexual assault, believes the sheriff's department, believes it is consent, and they are not prosecuting the case. Later, it turns out, Mr. Speaker, and I don't know if this influenced these people's decisions or not, but we learn that the defendant's family, the construction company, gave financial contributions to the sheriff's department, to the district attorney's office campaign, and to the University of Alabama, where they apparently are big contributors.
I don't know if that influenced all of this or not, but you can take it for what you want. But anyway, they backed off the case.
Megan, because it is the summer break, leaves and goes back home to Texas. She wants to get away from the University of Alabama because she had seen the defendant on campus.
He is not a student there. She had told the people on the campus: I am very worried about me because of this person being on campus.
She leaves the university, asking the title IX folks to help her transfer her university education from the University of Alabama to SMU, and she leaves. Apparently, she did not get cooperation, according to her, for a couple of months from the title IX folks, which is another issue that I am not going to go into, and enrolls in the university at SMU, needing a letter from
Alabama to get into another university, as all kids need to have nowadays. She is at SMU.
She seeks medical help in Texas. The doctor told her that the findings were apparently post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, all from this criminal case that happened against her, always telling folks she didn't consent.
She never changed her rendition of the case. She wasn't doing very well.
She saw a counselor at SMU and wanted help with depression when she is filling out her medical history form that goes to the university at SMU in Dallas, Texas. She said she had mental issues.
She said that she had bad thoughts about living. And then later, on February 26, 2016, with that form lying next to her, Megan committed suicide.
She took her life. Why?
My opinion, because she never got any help. She couldn't get help from the hospital because of the urine test; no drug test, no blood test; the rape kit never analyzed by the police department, sheriff's department; the sheriff's department didn't believe her?
Like I said, in my opinion, they didn't want to believe her. The university didn't help her.
They gave her a graduate assistant to try to help her with her mental case, told her to get on medication. Mr. Speaker, Megan did everything that she should have done under those situations.
It is easy for society, in cases like this, to always say to victims of crime, especially rape cases: You should have done this; you shouldn't have done that. And there is a lot of second-guessing going on in this case by a lot of people.
But, as a prosecutor, former judge, I think she did the best she could to get help, and she got no help. When people are desperate, when they feel like nobody cares, that nobody is going to help them, in a sexual assault case where--to me, that is one of the worst crimes that can be committed against a person--they are desperate, and she didn't think life was worth living because of this case.
Over the years, I have learned a lot from sexual assault victims, and one thing that they all want is validation. They want validation from us--community, society, and government--that that act they said happened to them did happen.
That is what they want. Sometimes they want that more than prosecution or apprehension of the offender, is validation that we believe them.
She didn't get that validation, except for her family, and so she took her own life. What a tragedy.
So that is why I am here today. Megan can't talk about what happened to her, but we can.
We, as Members of Congress, are really in the people business, and that is why I am in Congress. I know that is why you are in Congress.
So what are we going to do about this? What has happened in the interim?
Well, at the hospital, because of the failures--no drug testing, no urine testing, the loss of the sexual assault kit, rape kit, or not being analyzed--myself, Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York, and also, Terri Sewell, who represents this area in Alabama, have filed the Megan Rondini Act on her behalf. Now, what does that do?
So this legislation will require hospitals in our country, wherever they are, to have a SAFE at that hospital. What is a SAFE?
It is a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner. Some hospitals do, some don't; but this law will require you have one at your hospital 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or be able to take a sexual assault victim to one place close by that has this type of examiner.
It is a special recognition for people in the sexual assault business, whether they are a nurse or whether they are a doctor, and we filed that legislation. Maybe that would have helped in this case where the sexual assault examiner would have finished the examination, made sure that the testing was done, or had some examiner near this hospital.
So we filed this. It is called the Megan Rondini Act.
That is one of the pieces of legislation we filed. I want to talk about the law enforcement agency.
Now, you know as much about law enforcement as anybody in Congress, but let me tell you the way I see this. They never tested the sexual assault kit, the rape kit, the urine sample.
They questioned her because why didn't she resist? Why didn't she fight back?
When a person is drug-induced in a sexual assault, they can't fight back. They certainly can't consent, but that is what they were asking her, even though that didn't apply in this case.
She couldn't fight back. She didn't fight back because of what happened to her when she was drugged or under the influence of something.
And then they accused her of being a criminal. Rather than examining her case and finishing her case, they went on to take the defendant's position, say they believed him, even though he gave contradictory stories later in this investigation.
We have a piece of legislation that has already been filed to deal with sexual assault kits, and I have introduced legislation today to reauthorize SAFER. SAFER is a piece of legislation Congress needs to reauthorize to have rape kits throughout the country examined.
There are thousands of sexual assault cases sitting on the shelves, sitting in warehouses; some have been destroyed they are so old, where law enforcement, government, has not analyzed those sexual assault rape kits. There are a lot of excuses made--there is not money, all of those things.
They need to be examined in all criminal cases. SAFER provides funding to do that so that the backlogged evidence gets tested and so that it convicts the guilty and clears the innocent.
That is the second piece of legislation that we have filed. The district attorney's office, after Megan committed suicide, after they had refused to do anything about the case, almost a year later, they took the case to a grand jury, and it was not indicted. It was no-billed.
Now, I have presented cases to the grand jury. I am sure you have testified before grand juries.
Unfortunately, some district attorneys, I am not saying all, or even most--the grand jury does the will of the district attorney. If the district attorney encourages an indictment, that person is indicted. If they encourage and recommend a no-bill, not indicted, grand juries will do that.
Some prosecutors don't offer advice. They let the grand jury make that decision because that is their decision.
I don't know if that happened in this case or not. But they did decide to present the case to a grand jury, and it was not indicted.
She was not indicted, or the defendant was not indicted. Of course, nothing could happen to her.
She has already taken her own life. The university made some mistakes, in my opinion.
The school victim advocate abandoned her at the hospital where she was. On campus, the counselor, even though hearing the case, full story, at the end--this is interesting--at the end, decided to recuse herself because she knew the Bunn family.
She knew the Bunn family when this interview started. Why didn't she recuse herself before the victim tells the story again to another person, to another stranger?
Interesting turn of events. Graduate assistant, in my opinion, didn't have any qualifications to order that she get medical treatment before she comes back to talk to the folks at the hospital.
We have filed a resolution, it is a sense of Congress resolution, Mr. Speaker, calling on all universities to employ a full-time victim advocate on campus who deals with sexual assault victims, have that expertise. And it is an expertise.
A victim advocate needs to be specified to be a sexual assault victim advocate, because, you can talk about a victim advocate, that could be somebody talking about a theft case or something, but you need a sexual assault victim advocate on campus, no matter what university this happens to be. It is a sense of Congress.
It is a resolution that has been filed today. Mr. Speaker, let me--this is Megan Rondini. This is the way she looked when she was a student.
We have heard a lot about her, as we should. But now I want to talk about the family of the alleged perpetrator, Sweet T, and the Bunn family.
Well-known business in the community. Good for them. Business is doing well.
They give money to the university. As I mentioned, apparently they give money to the campaigns of the sheriff and the district attorney, and they make other contributions throughout the Tuscaloosa region.
Apparently, everybody knows them. They are so concerned about this case that this is a full-page ad taken out of one of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, newspapers this week defending their honor, as we would say in the South.
And it goes into quite a bit of detail. What it does is attack the victim of this crime.
It almost justifies the defendant's, the accused's, position. All through this ad, they talk about a lot of things.
I want to read you just part of it. Here's just one paragraph talking about their three generations of civic involvement in Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
We support education. We support law enforcement. We support our hospital and civic. We are generous, and now we are condemned as if it is a conspiracy. The Bunn family, for more than 70 years, have given their time, energy, and resources to make our community a better place to live. Now, according to some journalists, every act of charity and good citizenship was nothing more than a large standing conspiracy. If no deed goes unpunished then why should anyone invest in our community to take the risk of being a good citizen?
They are defending their honor. They are defending Sweet T. And all through this ad, taken out this week, they never mention sympathy or compassion or sadness for the death of the victim in this crime.
That seems very strange to me. Regardless of guilt or innocence, we know that a person took their life because of what happened.
I find that very strange. They seem to protest too much--full-page ad in a local newspaper.
The parents of Megan, Mike and Cindy Rondini, they are just folks who live in Austin, Texas. Robin, the aunt, she is a constituent of mine in Houston.
And just listening to them talk, there sure is a different side of the story about compassion than what we hear from the Bunn folks. Mr. Speaker, I will try to sum this up.
I appreciate your patience. I mentioned I have known a lot of sexual assault victims.
Years ago, before you were born, I was prosecuting in Houston, Texas. I am going to change the name of the victim in this case because of concerns about privacy for her family.
Lisa was a student at the University of Houston, working a second job. She leaves school one evening at about 9 o'clock p.m. or so.
She is driving north on one of our interstates--or freeways, as we call them. She has car trouble.
She pulls off the freeway, goes to a service station she thought was open. It was not open.
An individual comes up to her, has a pistol--Luke, we will call him--kidnaps her, sexually assaults her, and abandons her. She is later found in a very traumatic emotional state somewhere in the area.
The police are called. They figure out who the perpetrator was, they go out and arrest him, investigate the case.
One thing I want to mention that happens in most cases that didn't happen in Megan's case, the police didn't talk to any witnesses. They didn't talk to the witnesses at the bar.
They didn't talk to any of Megan's friends. They didn't talk to anybody.
They just talked to the alleged perpetrator and to Megan. No investigation.
Anyway, the investigation is done, Luke is captured. It turns out he is an ex-con for sexual assault--rape, as we called it in those days.
Lisa convinced herself that she would testify. She comes to the courthouse.
I prosecuted the case. She went through every detail. And you remember, Mr. Speaker, years ago, before the law started having justice in it, sexual assault victims had to tell their whole sexual life before strangers.
Of course the defendant, you never could go into the sexual life of the defendant, but the defense could always go into it on a victim. She goes through the trial.
Twelve right-thinking folks on a jury convicted the offender. That same jury gave him 99 years in the penitentiary of Texas, what he earned, what he deserved.
We would hope that life would go on, that justice is done, and that everybody is satisfied that justice is done. But that doesn't always work.
Lisa lost her job, dropped out of school, and started abusing alcohol, drugs, and a lot of stuff. She married, had two kids.
Her husband, being the kind of guy he was, apparently decided to leave her and took the two kids and went somewhere else. It wasn't long after that I got a call from Lisa's mom telling me that she had taken her own life and left a note saying: “I am tired of running from Luke in my nightmares.”
Another victim years ago, and I give her example only because we need to understand that this is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. One other case.
I prosecuted a case where a guy was charged with sexually assaulting an elderly woman. She came to the courthouse to testify.
Sadie. I will use her first name.
She was dressed in a dark gray suit, long skirt, and double-breasted coat. She had on a dark gray hat and a little veil over her face.
She took the witness stand. I asked her: What happened when this perpetrator that you have identified came into your house? She said: He committed an act worse than death.
I asked: What do you mean? What did he do? Did he assault you? What did he do?
She said: He committed an act worse than death. Finally, she testified to the legal requirement of penetration.
To some sexual assault victims, rape is a fate worse than death. To Megan, she got the death penalty for being a sexual assault victim.
She couldn't quite handle it. Why? Because no one was there to make sure that she did handle it.
Mr. Speaker, sexual assault predators--and that is what they are. You can call it rape, you can call it sexual assault, you can call it a fate worse than death--sometimes steal the soul of the victim.
That is the way the victims feel. Everything that was important to them is gone because of the perpetrator.
I think the best evidence, unfortunately, that Megan, in my opinion, was telling the truth throughout all of this was that she took her life. That is what makes this case so sad.
Sexual assault or rape, Mr. Speaker, is never the fault of the victim. Never. Never.
And some folks want to look at this and say: Megan, you should have done this, you should have done that, you shouldn't have gone with him, you shouldn't have been drunk, and you shouldn't have allowed him to get you intoxicated on drugs, whatever. I think most of them do the best they can in trying to get justice.
She went to the hospital and was denied help. The sheriff's department, in her opinion, denied help.
In fact, they accused her of being the perpetrator. They didn't investigate, they didn't talk to witnesses.
She goes to a university that gets Federal funds trying to get help and was denied. Denied. Denied. Denied.
She leaves, she goes back to Texas, tries to enroll in another university, and before all that is completed, and she takes her life. I hope we can understand not just this case and not just Megan, but we can understand the plight and the awful things that happen to some of our young women in our country.
The same Constitution that protects defendants of crime, protects victims of crime. They are entitled to equal protection under the law.
I am talking about victims of crime. If we understand that principle, we will understand justice. We will understand what we are all about; that we are in the people business.
In this House of Representatives on this late Friday afternoon, we need to understand that. Justice means different things to different folks.
But justice must be balanced between the rights of the accused and the rights of the victim so that we do the right thing for the right reason in every case. Mr. Speaker, you know this in doing investigations in your capacity before, and I want to reiterate this.
Sometimes victims just never get over it. They just never do. We should be there with them.
I am talking about the community should be there with them and at least hear them out and make a rational and just decision, regardless of who the offender is: poor, rich, famous, somebody in the community, big contributor, whatever; and no matter who the victim is, same background: poor, rich, famous. That should go away in determining justice.
Otherwise, we don't have justice for all. We only have justice for a few.
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the time, I appreciate the patience of the House of Representatives when I wanted to talk today about Megan Rondini. This case bothers me as a father of four kids, three of them girls; twelve grandchildren, eight of them girls.
It bothers me as a Member of the House of Representatives and as a former person who worked at the courthouse for over 30 years. I hope it bothers the House of Representatives so we move forward with trying to get help for folks like this, that we pass legislation that requires a safe officer at hospitals, that we pass legislation as a House resolution that it is a sense of Congress that all universities have on campus a sexual assault victim's advocate or coordinator, as the law says.
I thank Carolyn Maloney from New York and Terri Sewell from Alabama, who represents this area, for cosponsoring this bill. I ask the leadership to move this legislation forward.
But let's not forget about Megan's family and Megan's case and the thing that happened to her that just can't happen anymore. Justice can be served, it shall be served, because justice is what we do, Mr. Speaker.
And that is just the way it is.