[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
Nobody in the suburban Phoenix neighborhood knew who Chris Simcox was, at least not by the Minuteman movement persona he had cultivated on television only a few short years before. As far as Michelle Lynch knew, he was just the dad who would hang out and watch the kids play outside, like involved dads do.
“I had met him just a few times,” she recalled in an interview, describing the period in early 2013 when they lived in the same suburban Phoenix apartment complex. “He was always outside the apartments that we lived in. There were a lot of families like that, especially around 4:30, 5 o’clock, all the families would come outside and the kids would all play. There was always a ton of children outside, and he was always outside with his kids.
“I remember once he said to me, ‘You know, my motto is, if there’s light outside, there’s no reason to be inside.’ … And I thought, ‘Oh, you know, he’s an involved father,’ but that didn’t last long.
“All of a sudden they were always inside. And you know, he had kid stuff on his back porch, and my daughter liked going over there because they could paint and stuff.” The girls enjoyed each other’s company. There were sleepovers. There was candy.
That all culminated – after months of manipulation of her daughter – with the then-5-year-old girl telling her mother about how Simcox had molested her one night in February. It happened as they were going to bed together one night in May – three months later.
Even after she informed police and they began investigating Simcox, the manipulation continued.
After his arrest in July 2013, his ability to toy with her daughter changed dramatically, but not entirely: Simcox has delayed the trial multiple times, and eventually asserted and obtained his right to represent himself in court, raising the specter of the alleged perpetrator cross-examining his victim on the witness stand.
To Michelle Lynch, that was the final manipulation, and a chance for Simcox to traumatize her daughter a second time.
And until the Arizona Supreme Court intervened last week, that prospect very nearly became a reality after both the trial judge and an appeals-court panel decided to let the trial proceed with Simcox having the right to cross-examine all witnesses, including a third young girl who is expected to testify about his similar attempts to abuse her.
“This is just crazy,” says victim’s rights expert Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. “We shouldn’t ask the victims that much, and we don’t need to ask them that much. Because you can balance these easily.
“I actually don’t think this is as hard as some courts are making it,” Garvin explained in an interview. “The individual’s right to self-representation has well been acknowledged to be limited. You can put reasonable limits in place. And when those limits are necessary to protect someone else’s constitutional rights, particularly a state constitutional right, which is the one at issue here – although at other times it can be a federal constitutional right to privacy, depending on the type of question being asked – then the answer should be pretty straightforward: have a standby counsel ask the questions.”
Daphne Young of Childhelp, an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children, said that permitting such a situation would be a gross mistake.
“When a potential predator has the opportunity to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, there’s a great risk for intimidation, manipulation and re-victimizing of that young victim,” Young told KPHO-TV. “When you consider all the verbal and non-verbal cues that a predator uses to groom a young victim, there’s a lot that can happen under the nose of the judges and even experts in the field because of the intimate relationship that abusers use to create silence.”
The trial judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla, is no stranger to controversy. In 2009, he came under harsh criticism for having refused to allow a Phoenix woman named Dawn Axsom to move herself and her son out of state to avoid violence that she feared at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, who a short while later shot and killed both Axsom and her mother before killing himself.
Michelle Lynch said that her greatest concern in all this is that, if Simcox gets his way, he’ll traumatize her daughter all over again. She described to Hatewatch how her now-7-year-old girl broke down in hysterics when informed recently that Simcox might be asking her questions directly.
“I am concerned that the system will make my daughter a victim again,” she said. “There’s no reason for this to be happening. If there is this consensus as to it not being appropriate, I don’t understand why it is happening.”
She looks back on the situation now with a mother’s guilt, knowing there were abundant signals that something was amiss. “I felt bad because I trusted him,” she said. “There was this candy thing. The kids have all mentioned candy, which was how he lured them.
“I remember one day the doorbell rang and my son answered the door, and Chris and his daughter were standing at the door, and Chris handed my son a two- or three-pound bag of Skittles, and told my son to give it to my daughter for being a good girl. And at the time I couldn’t understand why someone would give that much candy to a child. It didn’t even register.”
That happened sometime after the February molestation, but before Lynch finally learned in May from her daughter that Simcox had molested her. “It had been happening for a couple months,” she said.
Then came what seemed like an interminable period between her report to police and Simcox’s arrest. “When I told police, and they were investigating him for over a month, my daughter and I were dodging him,” she said. “I mean, he would walk by our house and we wouldn’t go outside. The minute we got home we would run up our stairs and close the door.
“His daughter gave mine this handmade birthday invitation. And I told [my daughter] she couldn’t go, and she wanted to write a letter. I actually have the letter she wrote. She responded with, ‘I’m sorry, [Girl 2], I can’t go to your party because your dad is doing disgusting things to me.’ ”
No one in the neighborhood seemed to have any idea that the person they were dealing with was Chris Simcox, the onetime nationally famous leader of the “Minuteman” nativist border-watch movement. As early as 2005, Simcox’s erratic behavior – including allegations of an attempt to molest another of his daughters – had been explored in detail by the SPLC. Even as late as 2010, he had managed to remain in public view, running briefly for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.
Yet in the little neighborhood where he moved after divorcing his third wife, Simcox was just another guy. It never crossed Lynch’s radar, at least not until she reported him to police, that he was someone quite well-known.
“My older [teenaged] son, once he looked up who this guy was, after the Scottsdale police department told me who he was, my son started sleeping with a knife under his pillow,” Lynch recalled.
Once Lynch realized who he was, though, more of the pieces fell in place. “Those personalities like Chris have the narcissistic traits, and that’s the first thing I think of when it comes to him, you know,” she said.
“I really feel like because of the kind of person he is, I think he’s trying to make a comeback to being a nationally known person again. Especially with representing himself and all that. In all honesty, he’s going to make a mockery of himself. Because once people start to hear what he is going to throw out there as his evidence – it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Indeed, Simcox has hinted that he plans to present a “grand conspiracy” defense predicated on the idea that he is being persecuted by nefarious forces.
Seeing justice served on Simcox is only part of her intent, though. Her chief focus is seeing that her daughter is treated the right way by the justice system. As she explained to Judge Padilla in a letter pleading to keep Simcox from questioning her daughter directly on the stand:
I understand that within the justice system, all accused have specific rights that officials do their best to uphold so to be fair and maintain the integrity of the Constitution, but it is my hope that my daughter’s rights are also taken into consideration and [she] is given the opportunity to progress and not regress due to the ensuring of one individual’s rights over another.
Meg Garvin says that these kinds of conflicts in pro se cases happen on “a not-infrequent basis.” She says that while it’s rare, there have been cases where accused perpetrators directly cross-examined their ostensible victims. But she insists that there’s no reason for that to happen.
“This isn’t that complicated. To ensure that the defendant’s rights, the real test is if he is directing his representation, and he would still be able to direct the questions,” Garvin said. “The victim would not have to be subjected to a very intrusive, invasive and harassing moment where the perpetrator is essentially assaulting again.”
Yet even though it seems simple, instances such as this one happen all too often in the American legal system, Garvin says. “Courts routinely defer to defendants’ rights without doing an appropriate calculus of the victims’ rights,” she said.
Michelle Lynch believes there’s a real cost to that. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t even pursue stuff like this because they’re frustrated with the criminal-justice system,” she said. “And I get it. I fully understand, now that I’ve been through this process, why people would just give up and not do anything about it. But I’m a very strong-willed person.”