Heather R. Hlavka and Sameena Mulla, “Bodies in Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication” (NYU Press, 2021)

Scholars Heather Hlavka (Marquette University) and Sameena Mulla (Emory University) have written a new book that examines and interrogates the place and space of the courtroom, the use of expertise, especially scientific expertise, in the adjudicative process, and how this all intersects with race and gender in cases of sexual assault. Bodies in Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication (NYU Press, 2021) is the result of a long-term ethnographic study of sexual assault cases in the city of Milwaukee, and how those cases, as they come through the legal system, re-animate cultural narratives and re-inscribe the authority associated with law courts and the legal system itself. A key focus of the research was in examining the ways in which medicolegal and forensic evidence was used in the trial process, and how the reliance on these scientific resources and those who narrate and explain these dimensions of evidence and information are often set in contrast with the experiences of the victim-witnesses in sexual assault cases.

Hlavka and Mulla, and their team of students and research assistants, spent more than five years in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, sitting in at all aspects of the trial process, from jury selection to the trial itself, and more. During this time, all of the researchers observed the dynamics around how victims and victim-witnesses were assessed based on their class, race, virtue, gender, and how their very bodies were re-visited during the course of the evidence presentment. This analysis was seen in contrast to the approach to “expert” testimony in the form of medical professionals, forensic professionals, police, and legal professionals. Key points that come through the research, and thus through the book, note how the racialize and gendered narratives are clear within the interactions in the courtroom, but these dynamics do not generally come through in trial transcripts, opinions, or the judicial record of a case. Thus, the deeply lopsided racial dynamics of the courtroom are not clear in the written record but are starkly clear within the walls of the courtroom.

Bodies in Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication is a multi-layered, multi-method examination of how the judicial system, in context of sexual assault adjudication, does not, in fact, achieve what might be a just outcome in many situations. The adversarial legal system in the United States does not generally assist the communities that are often broken by this very process. Hlavka and Mulla also suggest that the investment in and use of forensic and scientific evidence has not, in fact, shifted the outcomes in these kinds of cases. Bodies in Evidence will be of interest to a great many readers, from a host of different perspectives and disciplines.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at lgoren@carrollu.edu or tweet to @gorenlj.

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