More than five years after then-14-year-old Hope Cheston was allegedly raped by a security guard outside her Jonesboro, Georgia, apartment, a jury awarded a 'history-making' $1 billion verdict in damages against Crime Prevention Agency Inc., the company that employed her alleged rapist.
Three lawyers told The New York Times they believed the award was the largest verdict for damages in a rape case in U.S. history.
Verdicts in the millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars are not uncommon, Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, said in an email to The Associated Press, but he said this judgment was clearly meant to "send a message."
"I was really proud of the jury because there is no basis in the legal world for how high a rape verdict can be," Cheston's attorney L. Chris Stewart told the AP.
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Cheston's' alleged attacker, Brandon Lamar Zachary, was convicted of statutory rape and is serving a 20-year prison sentence, according to The Associated Press. Cheston was outside an apartment complex, chatting with her boyfriend by some picnic tables when Zachary allegedly approached, told the boyfriend not to move and then raped the girl.
This jury was called to determine the amount of civil damages against the company that hired Zachary, which a 2015 complaint said had a "duty to properly supervise and/or monitor its security officer," according to WXIA.
Cheston, now 20 and a student at Fort Valley State University, told The New York Times and other outlets she thinks this verdict signals a shift in how seriously people take the crimes of rape and sexual assault.
"I feel like my case is just to show that you may not get it immediately, but you will get what you're worth," Cheston told The Associated Press. "This shows that people do care about the worth of a woman."
She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at a news conference that she'd expected her case to be "swept under the rug" but instead came "to find out 12 strangers feel like what I went through and my story and how I feel six years later is worth a billion dollars."
“This is a huge victory for women,” her lawyer L. Chris Stewart told the AJC. "A jury, from now on, will know there is no ceiling on the damages that rape causes to a woman. They literally thought a billion dollars was the value of a 14-year-old being raped in public," he told The News York Times.
Although it's unlikely the Cheston will ever see much of the money — the company probably will appeal, has changed its name and isn't worth anywhere near $1 billion, according to The New York Times — the verdict is at least a symbolic victory for Stewart and Cheston.
"It shows companies that 'We (women) will be heard and there are people out there that truly value us,' " Stewart said, according to WXIA.
The verdict comes as the #MeToo movement continues to force companies and institutions to reckon with the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, although many companies have still reportedly done little to effect change. The movement has also forced the public to look hard at celebrities and other highly visible figures, including Bill Cosby, who was convicted of sexual assault in April.
As for Cheston, she told The New York Times she's now "in a comfortable spot" about what happened and hopes to be a symbol of guidance for other survivors.
“My verdict basically shows if you stick with it and do what you need to do to get your justice, there’ll be a brighter end,” she told the paper.