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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005 12:35 pm

Her name was Lisa

Justice delayed for McFarland rape victim meant justice denied

Lisa Weisser
Whenever you start a new job in a new town, someone gives you a stack of letters, e-mails, and press releases that no one else was interested in and calls them story ideas. Check these, you’re told — there’s got to be something here to get you started. Usually there isn’t much. In this stack, though, I found Lisa Weisser. It was late September. Her husband, Mikel, had written an e-mail several months ago, saying that we should write something. We didn’t, which is no one’s fault. Journalists are busy people. There are always more stories than time. A few days before I moved to Springfield, a retired lawyer who’d befriended Lisa and her husband, e-mailed my editor, reminding him of her plight. Lawyers can be wonderful people, especially when they’re not working for anyone. The 82-year-old attorney who lived near Lisa and Mikel in Arizona helped cut through the legalistic excuses. Lisa needed help or, at least, some publicity. She’d been raped in a state mental hospital 11 years ago, and her lawsuit against the state of Illinois had been languishing for a decade. Ten years. That’s a long time to wait while lawyers and judges dawdle. And Lisa’s case seemed strong — after all, the McFarland Mental Health Center staff knew that her rapist was dangerous as all get-out and still didn’t watch him closely enough to prevent him from attacking her. I didn’t know what to expect when I first called Lisa. I knew that she had been at McFarland because she was suffering from depression, but still. There’s a certain stereotype. Some of my best friends are on psychotropic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re great interviews. Lisa was. She opened up almost instantly, obviously eager to tell her story to someone who was taking notes. She told me that she had been sent to McFarland after a suicide attempt. She told me about her mother’s death early this year. She told me how tough it was to return to Springfield from Arizona and testify in court, reliving an attack by a man who told the cops that she was just playing hard to get. We talked for about 45 minutes. Near the end, I asked her how she was doing these days. Not great, she told me. She said that she still suffered from severe depression and always would. She sounded at once resigned and matter-of-fact. Usually folks who persuade reporters to take on their causes are all too eager to return phone calls and give advice. Not Lisa. Gently I coaxed her to fax a release-of-information waiver to the police and tell her lawyer to give me documents. Sometimes she promptly returned my calls or e-mails; sometimes it would take a few days. But she always did. At one point, she told me that she was scared of the telephone. “I am sorry that I do not have the courage to call you,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I am a very (aren’t we all?) complicated human being. Let me know what my next step should be, and I will take it.” Getting her story told and making the system pay attention was incredibly important to Lisa. Trying to fix things was far more important than money. “Validation over the attack is something I believe will help me heal from this incident,” she wrote in an e-mail a few days after we first spoke. When the story ran, on Oct. 13, she said that I’d done a good job, that, for the first time in a long time, she felt hope. A few weeks later, she wrote to me again, asking me to look at some court documents and tell her whether I thought they meant anything — she couldn’t understand them, she said, and her lawyer wouldn’t return her phone calls. I looked at the paperwork and told her that I didn’t think it was anything new. She apologized for wasting my time and mentioned a recent letter to the editor expressing outrage and asking whether she had a legal fund that was accepting contributions. “It was uplifting to read it,” she wrote. That was on Oct. 28. I never heard from Lisa again, although her husband e-mailed the editorial staff the day before Thanksgiving, saying that we would all be in their prayers. On Saturday, Lisa went for a drive — that’s when her husband believes she took the overdose of Xanax and Elavil. “She came home and asked me to go to bed with her and hold her and tell her I loved her,” Mikel says. Lisa fell asleep in her husband’s arms and never woke up. She was 45.
On Monday, I called the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and left a voice mail, saying that Lisa had died. I wanted to ask the same questions she and her staff wouldn’t answer in October: Why has this case dragged on so long? Why are state lawyers spending so much time and energy fighting in court instead of paying out a measly $100,000 — the maximum allowable — and acknowledging that Lisa Weisser was raped because the state didn’t do its job? The spokesman called back and expressed sympathy but said that the office couldn’t talk about the lawsuit. That’s policy. Lisa’s case, he explained, is pending.
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