Read an Excerpt
The Myth of Intention
Five days before her thirtieth birthday, on August 24, 1986, Toni Gustus was out on her patio. It was a Sunday, about four o’clock in the afternoon, and Gustus was in a T-shirt working on some plants. She had just moved to Massachusetts from Iowa; the only contact she had in town was the person who had hired her for a job at the United Way in Framingham. She had found a small two-bedroom basement apartment with a living room that opened onto a sunken patio. When she stood on the patio, the street came up to her chest.
A man strolled by and asked for directions. His eyes seemed glassy and his speech was slurred. Gustus did not know how to direct the man, but her Midwestern upbringing kept her from giving a curt answer and turning away. She told him she was new in town and unsure of the local geography. She pointed him in a direction she thought might be helpful. The man did not turn away. He took another step toward the patio and asked if a different street could take him to the same place. She told him what she knew, but she was starting to feel uncomfortable. It was as if they were suddenly having a conversation. The man took another step to the edge of the patio. Gustus told the man she had to go inside. She turned, and he jumped down onto the patio. He grabbed her arm. She raised her voice immediately and told him to leave. He asked for a glass of water. Gustus could smell alcohol on his breath. She protested, and he started to shove her back into the apartment.
A driver in a passing car saw a man and woman having what seemed to be an altercation on a patio. The driver went to the corner, turned around, and came back for another look. By the time the car got back to the spot, the patio was empty. The driver moved on.
The intruder was not much taller than Gustus. She was about five foot five, and he may have been five foot nine or ten. But he was considerably stronger. The moment he shoved her into the apartment, she started fighting. She screamed, and he clamped a hand over her mouth. He was carrying a portable music player, and Gustus seized the headphones cord and wound it around his neck. He seized her throat. They struggled, trying to subdue each other, until Gustus felt she was going to pass out. Something more primal than fear kicked in. Gustus let go of the headphones cord and went passive. It wasn’t just that he was stronger: He was so drunk that she feared he might asphyxiate her and not even know it. No matter what happe ned, she wanted to get out alive.
The moment he started removing her clothes, another instinct kicked in. Gustus started to memorize details about the man. He was white and in his early twenties. He had a little black cross on one arm that may have been ink or may have been a tattoo. He had dark blond hair that fell over his forehead and his ears. His hair was parted in the middle. His nose was long in proportion to his face. His eyes were blue and relatively narrow. He had a tapered jaw. On and on she went, looking for distinctive features. She swore to herself, I am not going to forget this face.
After he raped her, the man allowed her to dress. He put on his clothes. He was not done; it appeared he wanted to have a conversation. Gustus could not believe he wanted small talk. In a sympathetic voice, he told her that “Sometimes it is not good for women when it is like this.”
Gustus was stunned: He had no idea what he had just done. He was subdued for now, but who knew how long it would last? Screaming for help was out of the question; she had tried that, and no one had responded. She had to get out of the apartment. Calmly keeping up her end of the small talk, she told the rapist she needed a glass of water from the kitchen. She asked if he wanted a glass, too. He did nothing to stop her from walking out of the living room. The door to the apartment was next to the kitchen, and Gustus simply opened the door and kept walking. A strange calm descended upon her. She knew what she had to do. From a drugstore, she called her boss and told him what had happened. He drove by, picked her up, and took her to the police station.
Police officers administered a rape kit, and immediately asked Gustus to tell them everything distinctive about the rapist. Gustus unloaded every detail she had memorized about the man—the nose, the chin, the eyes, the hair. The man had been wearing a blue and white shirt, a blue windbreaker, and jeans. An artist came up with a composite picture that Gustus thought was fairly accurate. She told the police the man’s voice was slurred, but she was good with voices and had memorized how he sounded.
By the time the police arrived at the crime scene, the rapist was gone, but he had left his windbreaker behind. There was a burrito wrapped in plastic and foil inside one pocket. Police officers traced it to a convenience store. There was a black-and-white-film security camera in the store, and the police showed Gustus the grainy video. She recognized the rapist the moment she saw him even though the tape did not show his face. Gustus had memorized the man’s body language, the way he carried himself.
The police showed her photos of a number of possible suspects and pictures from local high school yearbooks. None of the photos matched the rapist. About a month after the crime, the police asked Gustus if a drifter they had picked up was the man. Gustus said no. In early December, the police picked up a man who matched the composite picture. Late one evening, police detectives brought Gustus a set of fifteen photos. Gustus pointed to the photo of the man the police had picked up, but she said she needed to see him before she could be sure. Through a one-way mirror at the police station, Gustus thought she saw the rapist. She was cautious by nature, and asked if she could hear the man’s voice. The police held a door ajar so Gustus could hear the suspect speak. Gustus told the police she was 95 percent sure that the man in custody was the rapist. His name, she learned, was Eric Sarsfield.
Gustus spent Christmas that year with her family, in a small Illinois town across the Iowa border. She had thought a lot about Sarsfield in the days after she’d identified him. She was quite certain he was the rapist but was worried about the sliver of doubt at the back of her mind. Gustus was the sort of person who took responsibility for everything; no matter the situation, she asked herself what she had done wrong, or what she could have done better. Was her sliver of uncertainty only a manifestation of this trait to doubt herself? There was a Presbyterian church in town that Gustus had long known; it was a place of refuge and comfort. She was a person of faith, and the church always renewed her. She used to sing in the choir, and the choir director had been her voice teacher.
Sitting in the safe space of the church, ensconced by family, Gustus suddenly felt the burden of doubt lift from her shoulders. She was not 95 percent sure that Eric Sarsfield was the rapist; she was 100 percent certain.
She testified against Sarsfield. When asked how certain she was that the man sitting in the defendant’s chair was the rapist, Gustus said she was sure. The defense, of course, pointed out that Gustus had initially not been certain. But there were many things about Gustus and the crime that made her testimony compelling. She had seen her assailant for an hour in broad daylight on a sunny day. She was an extraordinarily diligent witness with a keen memory for every distinctive detail about the rapist. Her trustworthiness was unimpeachable, her caution exemplary. She was not the kind of person to say Sarsfield was guilty if she had the slightest doubt. Sarsfield pleaded innocent, but that did not mean much. Gustus told herself that it was possible he had no recollection of the crime because he had been so drunk.
The jury was out for several days. As usual, Gustus took responsibility for the delay. She remonstrated with herself for being so cautious at first. She was now afraid that the doubt she had initially expressed would cause the jury to set free a dangerous man—a rapist who would go on to harm other women. She wanted to see Sarsfield convicted and put behind bars. In the end, when the jury found him guilty, Gustus felt a tremendous relief. The months since the crime had been terribly difficult, and she wanted to move on with her life.