Not So Funny

Why Was Hillary Clinton Laughing About Helping Suspected Child Rapist?

As a lawyer in the 1970s, Hillary Clinton defended a child rapist. Is it disturbing that in a taped interview recorded years later she is heard laughing over how she succeeded in securing a more lenient sentence for him?

Saul Loeb/Getty

It’s hardly unusual for a criminal trial lawyer to gossip about a courtroom triumph on behalf of a less than admirable client, often with gallows humor and over drinks after a hard day’s work.

But it’s highly unusual for a lawyer to boast and laugh about such a circumstance in an on-the-record interview with a journalist—and pretty much jaw-dropping when the lawyer is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

According to a report in the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon—which includes six minutes of audio of Clinton’s interview with veteran Arkansas journalist Roy Reed—the once and probably future presidential candidate does just that, laughing at times in her account of a 1975 case in which she used a technicality to get a lenient sentence for her client, a 41-year-old accused rapist of a 12-year-old girl.

Clinton’s client, a factory worker, was facing a 30-year prison sentence if convicted of luring the girl into his automobile, plying her with alcohol and sexually assaulting her. Instead, he was able to cop a plea, admitting to the unlawful fondling of a child, and ended up being sentenced to a year behind bars, with two months reduced for time served, the Free Beacon reported, noting that he died in 1992.

At various points on the tape—which the Free Beacon says it unearthed from newly discovered archives of Clinton-related recordings housed at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville—Arkansas’ then-first lady is heard laughing about the police investigators’ incompetent mishandling of bloody underwear, potential evidence that the prosecutor was forced to discard. The interview was conducted for an Esquire magazine profile that never saw print, the Free Beacon reported.

For a former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state who touts her decades-long record of championing women and children, this snapshot of her legal career is—to put it mildly— way off-message. A Clinton spokesman offered no comment concerning the Free Beacon’s report.

But on Facebook, where Washington Post political and cultural reporter Melinda Henneberger posted the Free Beacon story, the response to the Clinton tape has been overwhelmingly negative, suggesting that the revelation is potentially damaging to Clinton’s finely crafted image.

“This is beyond disturbing,” wrote veteran GQ magazine political correspondent Lisa DePaulo.

Former Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda commented: “Strikes me as the kind of dark humor you hear between cops, defense attorneys, and journalists. And yes, chuckling about this to a reporter looks bad. Appears like she was laughing about how clever she was as a defense attorney.”

“Except that this was an on-the-record interview with a reporter,” DePaulo pointed out.

Henneberger commented: “Typical lawyer talk, but not so much lifelong defender of women and children talk.”

The Free Beacon was vague about when the interview was conducted, saying it was part of a cache of recordings made from 1983 to 1987, when Clinton’s husband Bill was serving as governor of Arkansas and she was a partner in the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. It was then that Clinton was an activist first lady, especially on behalf of women and children, working to revamp the state’s public education system and, starting in 1986, as chairman of the Massachusetts-based Children’s Defense Fund. Roy Reed, who is now 84, couldn’t be reached for comment.

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Clinton’s role in the 39-year-old criminal case has been written about before, notably in her memoir, Living History, in which she writes that her defense of accused rapist Thomas Alfred Taylor prompted her to help start the first rape crisis hotline in Fayetteville, where her husband was teaching law at the University of Arkansas.

But her interview with Reed—who is also heard laughing at points on the recording—adds a different dimension to the episode, showing her to have been a tough, aggressive lawyer going to great lengths to defend her client, even though she believed he was probably guilty.

“I had him take a polygraph, which he passed—which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs,” she is heard telling Reed, punctuating her comment with a laugh.

While the recording is problematic on political grounds, it is also ethically troubling, renowned defense attorney Gerald Shargel told The Daily Beast. “It is in bad taste,” he said. “A lawyer has an obligation to do no harm to a client and that obligation continues after the disposition of the case. To destroy the guy in the court of public opinion may run afoul of [legal ethics]. Finally, laughing about a client who got away with it? The better discretion suggests you say nothing.”

The Free Beacon story cites a July 28, 1975 affidavit in which Clinton attacked the credibility of the young alleged victim, claiming that she was “emotionally unstable” and had a “tendency to seek out older men and engage in fantasizing.”

Clinton, at the time of the case, was a 27-year-old Yale Law School grad who had served in Washington as a staff lawyer on the House committee considering the impeachment of President Nixon. She went on in the affidavit: “I have also been told by an expert in child psychology that children in early adolescence tend to exaggerate or romanticize sexual experiences and that adolescents in disorganized families, such as the complainant’s, are even more prone to exaggerate behavior.”

She added that the girl had “in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body” and that the girl “exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.”

But the defense prevailed, Clinton told Reed, when she realized that the crime lab had woefully mishandled the girl’s bloody underwear—a key piece of evidence.

“The crime lab took the pair of underpants, neatly cut out the part that they were gonna test, tested it, came back with the result of what kind of blood it was what was mixed in with it—then sent the pants back with the hole in it to evidence…Of course the crime lab had thrown away the piece they had cut out.”

Clinton said she traveled to New York City and found a renowned forensic expert who would testify that the remaining material lacked a sufficient amount of blood to test. Clinton said she catalogued the expert’s intimating resume and handed it to the prosecutor. “I said, ‘Well, this guy’s ready to come up from New York to prevent this miscarriage of justice.’”

At which point, on the recording, she’s heard bursting into laughter.

Facebook commenter Julie Cristal, who describes herself as a “writer/mom/volunteer” from Shaker Heights, Ohio, was among those not amused. “You can still vote for her if you’d like. But no justifying here,” Cristal wrote. “It’s an insult to those who have been victims.”