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Kathy Shelton, the rape victim Donald Trump is now using against Hillary Clinton, explained

Trump’s attack that Clinton defends rapists is really an attack on the Sixth Amendment.

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Both before and during the second presidential debate, Donald Trump attempted to accuse Hillary Clinton of defending sexual assault of women by mentioning a woman named Kathy Shelton — who’d been raped at the age of 12.

Trump lumped her in with other women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the past. Shelton’s accusation is different. It has nothing to do with Bill Clinton at all, but rather about Hillary Clinton’s legal career before she went into politics.

Clinton, then a young attorney, represented the man Shelton accused of raping her. And under Clinton’s counsel, the accused man only served 10 months in jail.

In Trump’s characterization — and in the conservative movement over the past two years, where Shelton’s case has become a cause célèbre — Clinton’s involvement in the case is evidence that she approves of rapists.

That’s not the case at all. At heart, it’s an attack on Hillary Clinton for doing what the Constitution ordered her to do.

Thomas Alfred Taylor was charged with raping Kathy Shelton in 1975

At 4:50 am on May 10, 1975, 12-year-old Kathy Shelton walked into a hospital emergency room in Washington County, Arkansas, in psychological distress and saying she had been raped.

A medical investigation found (according to a local prosecutor) that “the victim herein had, in fact, had sexual relations consistent with the time stated by her wherein she was attacked.” (Shelton later claimed she spent five days in a coma after the attack, though the court documents associated with the case don’t mention this.)

Shelton accused a 42-year-old man named Thomas Alfred Taylor of the rape. Taylor had been with her that night, as had two other men. (This Glenn Thrush piece from 2008 in Newsday goes through the details of Shelton’s allegations of what happened.) Taylor claimed he hadn’t committed the crime, but was charged with first-degree rape — a charge that carried with it a sentence of 30 years to life.

What happened next isn’t covered in court documents, but has been recounted by Hillary Clinton and by others involved in the case: Taylor requested that he have a female defense lawyer to represent him. The prosecuting attorney in the case recommended Clinton, then a young lawyer named Hillary Rodham; the presiding judge requested that she take on Taylor as a client.

Clinton didn’t want the case, she wrote in her 2003 memoir Living History. “I told Mahlon (Gibson, who was prosecuting the case) I really didn’t feel comfortable taking on such a client, but Mahlon gently reminded me that I couldn’t very well refuse the judge’s request.” Gibson, for his part, has backed this up: “Hillary told me she didn’t want to take that case, she made that very clear,” he told Newsday.

But the Constitution requires a right to adequate council, and she had been called to serve. So she defended Taylor. And she defended him aggressively.

How Taylor got a plea bargain — and a prison sentence of under a year

Clinton didn’t get Taylor off. He pled guilty before the case had a chance to go to trial. But he pled guilty to a much less serious crime — fondling of a minor — and only served 10 months in jail.

That’s a big difference from first-degree rape. The court documents tell some of the story about how this happened; Clinton, in an interview with journalist Roy Reed conducted sometime in the mid-1980s (and uncovered by the conservative news site the Washington Free Beacon in 2014), tells the rest.

Clinton did many of the standard things that a defense lawyer does to help her client. She got the judge to order the prosecution to turn over any evidence that might help the defendant’s case. She tried to keep the statements Taylor had made to police from being entered as evidence, arguing that law enforcement had violated the constitution in getting them. And she asked that a court psychologist evaluate Shelton — writing in an affidavit, “I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and to engage in fantasizing.”

Taylor himself, meanwhile, passed a polygraph test (something Clinton told Reed in the 1980s interview “forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs,” apparently as a joke).

But the biggest development in the case was the result of the prosecution’s error. The main piece of DNA evidence, a scrap from pair of underwear with semen on it, was accidentally thrown away by the crime lab.

Clinton told Reed that she called a New York forensics expert, who agreed to testify that what remained of the underwear didn’t include enough semen to test — and then went back to the prosecutor and showed him the forensics expert’s Who’s Who listing. (When she told Reed about this back-and-forth, in the 1980s, she burst into laughter.)

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton in 1987. John Sykes/Liaison

Faced with this, the prosecutor agreed to a plea deal: The charge would be reduced to fondling, and Taylor would plead guilty. The judge then sentenced him to five years, with four of those years suspended — and an additional two months taken off for time already served in county jail.

That sentence is inconceivable today — both because sexual abuse of children is taken extremely seriously by society (Taylor would have been registered as a sex offender were he convicted today) and because of various laws that increased criminal sentences over the last 40 years. But in 1975, it’s what the prosecutor, the judge, and defense attorney Hillary Rodham agreed was appropriate.

The Taylor case become a conservative talking point as evidence that Clinton doesn’t really support sexual assault survivors

The case wasn’t forgotten during Clinton’s first run for president in 2008 (that’s when Glenn Thrush wrote his Newsday piece). But it was in the runup to her 2016 run that it — and Shelton herself — became a conservative cause célèbre.

In 2014, the Free Beacon posted the court documents, as well as the interview tapes from Clinton’s 1980s interview with Roy Reed. The Free Beacon and the Daily Beast both spoke to Shelton, still anonymous at the time; Shelton expressed her anger at Clinton, alleged that she’d “lied on me,” and accused her of laughing about Taylor’s guilt (which is an uncharitable characterization of the conversations of the Reed tape).

In August 2016, Shelton came forward in public in an interview with the Daily Mail. By October, she’s appearing alongside Donald Trump in a pre-debate press conference alongside three women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

The original appeal of the Shelton case to conservatives was partly a traditional tough-on-crime attack that she represented bad people, and partly that it reflects their prevailing sense of Clinton: that she has no principles and has contempt for the law.

But she’s become an especially important element in the response to accusations of Donald Trump’s misogyny. While Trump’s other validators aren’t directly connected to Hillary Clinton, Shelton is.

Furthermore, some of Clinton’s tactics in defending Taylor sound similar to tactics that feminists attack today — “victim-blaming” Shelton by testifying about her “tendency to seek out older men,” getting Taylor off on a “technicality” by discrediting the forensic evidence. That makes the Shelton case ripe for use by trolls: If Clinton really cares about sexual assault victims, why did she do these things to one?

This is an attack on Hillary Clinton for fulfilling a constitutional duty

The right to counsel is a constitutional guarantee. Period. It’s right there in the Sixth Amendment (emphasis added):

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

The Supreme Court hasn’t always agreed on the scope of the right to counsel: Only in the mid-20th century did it decide that defendants who couldn’t afford to hire lawyers had the right to public defenders. But the basic fact of it is pretty inviolable. There is no crime so heinous in the US court system that a lawyer is not permitted — even obligated — to speak in its defense.

It’s ironic that Clinton is being attacked for taking an assignment she didn’t even want. But she took it because someone had to, and the judge asked her to be that someone. Then she did her job as well as she had to: She ensured that her client got the due process of law.

She made sure that evidence that wouldn’t have passed scientific muster wasn’t introduced; she asked that a psychological expert evaluate the accuser to make sure she was making a credible claim. These are things that are important to ensure justice gets served — in rape or any other case.

In advance of the vice presidential debate, Republicans attacked Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, for representing convicted murderers in their death-penalty appeals. Now they’re attacking Clinton for representing a rapist. Both are really attacks on the idea that people accused of terrible things deserve competent legal representation — which is to say, attacks on the Constitution itself.