May 18, 2002

Good afternoon

President Vickers, Distinguished guests, and graduates of the class of 2002:

My college roommate - the woman who was blindly assigned to my dorm room from the first day I entered Vassar in 1965, has remained my best friend to this day. She flew into New York City from California this week, and we had lunch together yesterday. I told her how excited I was about coming to Bryn Mawr today to speak. She took the wind out of my sails when she told me that she remembered nothing about our commencement - and certainly nothing about the speaker, except that he was a tota l bore. All she recalled was the moment when she walked across the stage to accept her diploma. For the record - the speaker was no slouch. He had been Secretary of Labor under President Kennedy, a Justice of the Supreme Court, and then Ambassador to the United Nations.

So my dearest friend reminded me that I am pretty much all that stands between you and your degree. I expect that only some among you will be paying attention to what I have to say - and very few of you will remember that I addressed you here today - which is indeed a humbling perspective for a speaker.

I stand before you today with enormous respect for what each one of you has achieved in your years at Bryn Mawr, and for the academic excellence that this institution represents. I face you with great envy - and with empathy - for the challenges you will face in the coming years, as you leave these gates, continue to prepare for careers at graduate school, or now enter the workforce. As a graduate in the last all-women's class at Vassar, I can assure you that your embrace by the community outside these walls will be in no small measure due to the reputation that this faculty - and this administration - have earned FOR you, now and ever since the creation of this superb college in 1885.

From a personal perspective, I cannot help but offer a few comparisons to my own experience, starting at your age, more than thirty years ago. One of the great gifts of my Vassar education was the stunning strength it gave me, and the belief that each of the women in my class could go on to achieve any of our goals. It was a shock to arrive at law school and find myself as one of only a dozen women in a class of three hundred and forty students.

My early career decision had been an easy one. I was in high school when John Kennedy was assassinated, and I had been inspired like many of my generation to his call to public service: ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your county. I wanted to spend a few years in the Office of the District Attorney - not a lifetime. It was the premiere training ground for young litigators - then as now - in America.

There were only seven women on the staff of almost two hundred lawyers when I interviewed there. I remember with what great reluctance Frank Hogan - a legendary law enforcement figure - offered me the position. "Miss Fairstein," he told me, emphasizing my Seven Sisters' education, which I thought was my greatest asset - "this job is much too tawdry for a woman like you." Obviously, since I'm only now able to wrench myself away from that office after three decades, I have thrived on tawdriness.

Today, the Manhattan D.A.'s Office has more than 600 lawyers on the staff, half of whom are women. No woman had ever prosecuted a murder case in New York at the time I joined the office, nor had any held administrative positions. Now, both of those phenomena are commonplace around the country.

I did not go to law school - as some of you will do - to set off on a career because of goals and interests that were already clearly developed. There was not a prosecutor's office anywhere in America, then, which had units specially devoted to handling sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence. I sat through my own graduation ceremony not knowing exactly how my interests and energy would be engaged from that point forward.

When I came to the practice of law, many states, including New York, still mandated that the testimony of a rape victim be deemed incompetent - as a matter of law - unless independently corroborated by three specific forms of evidence - something MORE than your word, from another witness, was needed in order to prove that the crime occurred. That archaic impediment prevented the overwhelming number of rape victims from ever stepping foot in a court of law. The year I joined the office, more than a thousand men were charged with rape in New York City - and only 18 of them were convicted.

For the first fifteen years of my prosecutorial career, my colleagues and I devoted extraordinary human resources to encouraging survivors to trust the criminal justice system that had excluded them for so long. We tried to devise new strategies to investigate these cases and taught jurors to understand the devastating nature of these crimes. We helped victims to triumph in our courtrooms for the first time throughout the 1970's and 1980's, learning with them as we pioneered methods to i ncrease t he conviction rate and respond with sensitivity to their emotional needs.

During those years, I never dreamed that there would be a time when SCIENCE could relieve victims of the burden of identifying their assailants. I never imagined that what are now my three favorite letters of the alphabet - DNA - would be sequenced in such stunning fashion, and accepted as a reliable scientific technique in every courtroom in America.

As Bryn Mawr embarks on a Plan for the New Century, rededicating its commitment to math and the sciences with the establishment of a "Center for Science in Society, I want to explain to you how this exciting new technique - DNA technology - has revolutionized the criminal justice system, and done so within a very short period of time.

In 1986, while most of you were still in diapers, I was investigating what the press likes to call a high-profile murder case. A vibrant eighteen year old girl, weeks away from beginning her college career in Boston, was strangled to death in Central Park by a young man she knew and trusted. The media referred to him as a "preppy" - in fact, he was a drug-addicted drop-out. The medical examiner told me about this new genetic fingerprinting technique, and we decided to explore its forensic uses as we worked on this tragic case.

At that point in time, only one laboratory in the country performed the tests in which we were interested - at the FBI. The evidentiary sample we were asked to provide had to be larger in size than a quarter; the cost was $5,000 per sample;

the turn-around time for our preliminary result was SIX months; and there was not a trial court in the country that accepted this science as reliable - the evidence was not admissible before the jury.

Now, there are forensic DNA labs in every state; the cost per sample is several hundred dollars; the evidence submitted can be invisible to the naked eye - labs can test for 2 nannograms - and there are 1500 nannograms in a single drop of blood; my colleagues are impatient if we don't get results within 24-48 hours; and they are valid to a scientific certainty, accepted in courtrooms everywhere.

Science - a scientific technique that was non-existent fifteen years ago - has changed the way the legal system works. We use it to identify and convict the most violent criminal offenders on our streets, just as we use it to exonerate those individuals falsely or mistakenly accused.

What is most exciting is that it is a technique that continues to evolve, to offer still more solutions to unsolved crimes. You know about the uses of blood and body fluids in DNA profiling. Did you know there is enough saliva on the rim of a drinking glass or cardboard coffee cup to convict a murderer or serial rapist of his crime, as we have done many times? Enough skin cells on the collar of our academic gowns to link us each to the ones we are wearing today, or enough skin cells sloughed off o n the computer mouse back in your room to connect you to its use?

Debbie Smith is an extremely courageous woman who testified with me on Tuesday, in the United States Senate. She lives in the charming colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, where her husband works as a police lieutenant. After a long night of work, he came home one morning - in 1989 - and went upstairs to get some sleep in the master bedroom, his gun on a table beside the bed. Mrs. Smith was doing laundry in her kitchen when she realized the dryer wasn't working. She stepped outside into her yard to check the vent. She was accosted there by a stranger, a man who held a knife against her neck and threatened to kill her if she made a sound. He dragged her into the woods and raped her there, just steps away from her home and sleeping husband.

Debbie Smith was examined at a hospital, and reported the crime. Despite their best efforts, the police were never able to identify her attacker.

In 1995, Virginia became one of the first states to establish a DNA databank - a computerized system for matching the DNA from crime scene evidence against the genetic profiles of convicted offenders, serving time in state prison. That year, six years after the attack, detectives knocked on the Smith's door to give them the news that Mrs. Smith's case had been solved - the rapist who had so severely traumatized her in her own backyard had been identified - not by police investigators, but by science.

It is estimated that there are more than HALF A MILLION evidence collection kits sitting on police storage shelves across America. We are now trying to find all that evidence, fund the training necessary for enough scientists to examine it, and "upload" it to the nationally connected system of databanks so that these recidivist offenders can be identified and apprehended. We are using 21st Century technology to solve 20th Century crimes, and the potential to prevent future victimization is enormous.

When I began to write these remarks several weeks ago, we were all presented with a most dramatic - and current - example of the power of this process. Yesterday, the case took another turn.

In 1997 and 1998, in Philadelphia, most of you will recall there was a series of rapes in Center City, near Rittenhouse Square. Five women were sexually assaulted in cases that were not aggressively investigated by the police - in part because they did not believe the stories of the victims. The sixth woman - a Penn student - and I know Penn is part of your Consortium - was murdered after the assault.

Last month, in Fort Collins, Colorado, a 29 year old man was arrested for eight attacks in that town. All of the young victims were students at Colorado State University, burglarized in their apartments and sexually assaulted. Because of the new databanks, all of those cases were linked to the suspect by a DNA match - which now links him again to the Rittenhouse Square cases. Yesterday, in Colorado, he pleaded guilty to all those crimes, in exchange for a life sentence, sparing each of his victims the need to testify at a trial. He will be returned to Philadelphia for a similar proceeding, and another life sentence. Since his military postings have included stays in New Hampshire and New Mexico, California and South Carolina, police from each of his home communities will re-examine their files and scientists will help to include or exclude this man as a suspect in dozens of other crimes.

Imagine - Imagine how many women would have been spared this kind of victimization; imagine that at least one promising young life would have been saved, had DNA databanking been available as an investigative tool when the very first attack occurred.

I would like to talk for a few minutes about the events that changed all our lives, forever, on the morning of September 11th.

I arrived in my office before eight o'clock, as I often did. It was just ten blocks to the north of the World Trade Center, and through the window behind my desk I could see the Twin Towers clearly. The noise of the first crash and explosion rattled the glass and I swivelled in my chair, looking up to see the smoke pouring of the gaping black hole on the north side of the first tower. I'm sure some of you were even closer than I, and some of you lost people dear to you, as I did. Within minutes, I heard on the radio that a plane had flown into the building. I stood watching in disbelief, knowing how many people were already at their desks or on their way into the building, when the second plane crashed into the south tower.

Like most of us, I learned more about courage that day than I ever hoped to know. Because we are a law enforcement agency, the District Attorney requested that the handful of us who had entered the building before the attack remain on duty to staff the office. I looked down at the street below and watched as people moved north by the thousands, walking at first and running later, as the towers collapsed behind them. They were dressed in business suits and casual clothes - investment bankers, lawye rs, secretaries, clerks, college students, custodians.....and so on.

The only people running the other way - TO the burning towers - were all the men and women in uniforms: police officers - hundreds and hundreds of them on their way to the courthouse to prepare trial testimony; fire fighters; court officers; and emergency medical services. In addition to the images of the burning buildings that haunt us all, I place myself over and over again in front of that window - watching the blue uniforms separate from the civilian clothes - wondering to this day what instill s that kind of courage in some of us, thinking of the brave men and women who went into those buildings and up those staircases against all odds, when most of us wanted only to be as far away from the devastation as humanly possible.

There is one group of professionals who are, I think, the most unrecognized heroes of September 11th. Because my work, for the last decade, has relied so heavily on DNA technology, it became my habit to stop at the Medical Examiner's Office on my way downtown to the courthouse, in the weeks and months after the attack. I would visit the pathologists and the serologists - my friends - with coffee and sandwiches. They were working twenty hour shifts, beginning to process more than two million pie ces of human remains, trying to find volunteers from the local medical schools - young men and women medical students and science postdocs - to train them in DNA extraction - because there are not nearly enough professionals available anywhere in this country to do the massive undertaking of this project. No one in the scientific community anticipated the flood of uses for DNA technology. These men and women labored around the clock - they continue to do so - because now, these scientists are the only p eople who can give answers, and provide solace, to families of victims of 9/11. All of us owe them our sincerest gratitude.

One of the most exciting aspects for me, in the practice of law, has been the fact that it is ever dynamic - constantly evolving and developing, offering countless opportunities to be creative in forging solutions to issues that have presented themselves along the way. I think of how far we have come in dealing with the issue of sexual assault in my adult lifetime. Then, my breath was taken away when I read, in yesterday's NEW YORK TIMES, that in Pakistan, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning because she became pregnant - even though the pregnancy was the result of a rape. There is still so much to be done, so many changes for you to effect, in just about any profession you choose to enter.

When I graduated from law school, it was never my intention to spend a career in public service. I thought I would serve in the office for four or five years before going on to a more lucrative private practice. Almost everyone I met along the way advised me NOT to stay in the District Attorney's Office - telling me that my career wouldn't "go anywhere" if I worked there for too long.

There were times when it was difficult to reject the advice of wise and well-meaning friends and colleagues, and to ignore the financial advantages that were available in the private sector. But I approached the prosecutorial job with curiosity and enthusiasm, which developed - rather quickly - into a passion.

I have been privileged not only to prosecute those guilty of heinous crimes, but to exonerate the innocent. If the work sounds grim to you, it is rarely that. On most days, it was far more likely to be uplifting and rewarding, as we fought to make the system work for victims who came to us, often not expecting a just result. I have not only enjoyed the immense personal satisfaction of public service, but have also participated in the profoundly affecting changes of a body of law in this country - a nd in a humanizing of the criminal justice system, which had for so very long been unresponsive to the needs of the victims of sexual violence. And all accomplished in the span of time not very much longer than your young lives.

Some of you may have seen a recent article in Newsweek about DNA and its criminal justice uses. It was the monthly column written by Anna Quindlen. Anna and I spent several hours talking about the issue at breakfast one morning. At the end, I told her I was giving this speech and asked her advice - because she is not only brilliant, and eloquent, but because she has probably given more commencement speeches - riveting ones - than anyone I know.

I read several of her speeches, and want to quote a paragraph from one she gave at Mount Holyoke several years ago. It expresses exactly what I would like to leave you with - and says it so perfectly.

"When I quit the New York Times to be a fulltime mother, the voices of the world said that I was nuts. When I quit again to be a fulltime novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all."

It is easy for me to apply Anna's words to my own experience. Everyone - family and friends - thought I was nuts when I started working with survivors of rape and domestic violence, and even crazier when I stayed on at it for a quarter of a century. Now, some of them think I'm nuts because I'm leaving to become a part-time novelist, while continuing to devote the rest of my time to pro bono work on these same issues. Neither choice was nuts. For thirty years, in both careers, I have found great h appiness.

So I close by urging you to consider three things.

First: find a passion, something you love to do - not something other people want you to do. The women and men I know who are happiest - whether teachers or scientists or lawyers or business men and women - they're the people who love the work they have chosen, who get up in the morning and look forward to the way they're going to spend their day. Remember that, because with any luck, you will be doing it for a very long time.

Second: no matter what kind of work it is, understand that your richest rewards will most likely come when you find a way to give something back to society - to do something for those who have not had the blessings of your unique Bryn Mawr education and your accomplishments. I don't expect a great many of you - here or anywhere else - to spend careers in public service - but find some way to contribute, understanding that you can do well - very well - by doing good.

Third: Always hold on to your dreams. When I sat in the very same seats, at my commencement, I graduated with a major in English literature. I had always wanted to write books, tell stories - and fantasized - not about writing the great American novel, but writing the crime fiction that I have always enjoyed reading since my adolescence. It was only a dream, and as I set out on my legal career, I never really imagined that I would have the opportunity to fulfill it. But I held onto that dream, a nd while none of my Vassar professors would have banked on it, you can find my books on the library shelves, standing between those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Faulkner.

Hold onto your dreams - they CAN come true.

Congratulations to you - undergraduates, graduate students - for your stunning achievements; and to the proud and loving families that have supported you throughout these years - and good luck to you all.

cover icon Return to Fall 2002 highlights