Sexual Assault Victim Ordered to Pay Alimony to Attacker Fights to Change California Law

PHOTO: Crystal Harris, pictured here with her two sons, is fighting to change family law code in California.
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Crystal Harris, a San Diego woman who accused her husband, Shawn Harris, of sexually assaulting her and was then forced to pay him alimony before he was convicted, said their marriage unraveled when he repeatedly threatened to kill her.

"I did believe his threat," she said. "I started living in this weird world that just felt like -- I called it a house of horrors."

Now her story may change California state law.

Crystal Harris, 39, and her now ex-husband Shawn Harris, 40, had been college sweethearts. They married in 1996. She said there were scattered domestic violence incidents over the years and then in 2008, Shawn sexually attacked her while their two sons were upstairs. She managed to record the attack on tape with a tape recorder she hid in her drawer. The audio recording, though muffled, included Crystal pleading with her husband, saying, "I don't want to be raped" and "you're hurting my neck."

"I had made a mental note in my head of where the record button was," she said. "So, you know, I'm like talking to Shawn and I just hit that, and then, I just shut the drawer."

Despite Shawn Harris' record of domestic violence and the fact that he was awaiting a separate trial for rape charges during their divorce proceedings, family court Judge Gregory Pollack ordered Crystal Harris to pay her husband $1,000 a month, in part because she was the family breadwinner, a financial advisor making about $120,000 a year, while her husband stayed home with the kids. Before the birth of their sons, Shawn Harris had worked as a used car salesman.

"The computer came up with a number of $3,000 a month that I should pay Shawn, but the judge did lower that down to $1,000 a month," Crystal Harris said. "That is what I call the rape discount, because he thought he was doing me this big favor."

But Pollack did not see it that way, saying in court, "It's a long-term marriage. He's a stay-at-home dad... how can you say there should be no support without being sexist?" He even suggested Shawn Harris should get more money since he was un-hirable.

"He's out on bail facing rape charges, and I'm not sure that any car salesman would hire someone like that," Pollack said in court.

"It's not a matter of how much anybody makes. It's a matter of being a crime victim," Crystal Harris said.

Pollack declined "Nightline's" request for an interview. In a statement, a spokesperson told "Nightline" that "any sitting judge cannot discuss the details of the proceedings of an open case."

In the criminal court proceedings, Shawn Harris maintained the sex was consensual, saying that both he and Crystal yelled and screamed to get "our adrenaline pumping during sex." The audio tape helped convict him of forced oral sex. The other two charges he faced -- spousal rape by force and sodomy -- resulted in a hung jury, and the district attorney decided not to retry the case. Shawn Harris may be released from Donovan State Prison in 2014.

Crystal Harris said she believes the tape recording was key in getting a conviction.

"We wouldn't have been able to get a prosecution without that tape recording," Crystal Harris said. "And I would probably be dead today."

But previously in family court, before the criminal trial, the judge said Harris was still on the hook for some of her husband's legal fees for the divorce proceedings. She agreed in a settlement to pay $47,000 of Shawn's legal expenses.

Michele Hagan, a legal analyst and a former assistant district attorney who has prosecuted domestic violence cases, said she would have told the judge he was "flat-out wrong."

"This is further traumatizing her by having her -- tethering her to her abuser and having to pay him some money," she said. "What's happening is that batterers are using family court to further harass their victims."

San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said that while there is already a law banning alimony for those convicted of attempting to murder their spouse, it should also cover those convicted of violent sexual assault.

"I think it's a case of putting common sense on the books," Dumanis said. "We see that the law needs to be changed, and we're going to make sure it's changed."

Crystal Harris has gone public with her story in the hopes of getting the California law passed. Assemblywoman Toni Atkins introduced the legislation that would keep any victim of violent sexual crime perpetrated by a spouse from having to pay alimony to the abusive former spouse.

Last month, Harris told her story before the judiciary committee of the California State Assembly. The bipartisan committee passed the bill with one dissenting vote from Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski.

"I understand it's an unpopular position to take and my sympathy goes out to Ms. Harris," Wieckowski told the judiciary committee. "But bad facts can make for bad consequences in the law and I am seriously concerned about adding these crimes."

The bill will head to the Assembly floor for discussion. If passed, it will be forwarded to the state senate.

Most rape victims are shielded from public view, but Crystal Harris said she needed to step out of the shadows.

"It takes a real person, a real victim to show her case, show her face, and lobby and get the law passed one step at a time," Crystal Harris said. "It could happen to another woman."

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