Marissa Hoechstetter, who founded a group to promote justice for sex crime survivors, is endorsing Alvin Bragg in the crowded race for Manhattan district attorney.
Hoechstetter, who devoted years to exposing the sexual predation of a Columbia University gynecologist, said in an interview over the weekend her decision follows months of weighing two priorities: aggressively pursuing justice for sex crime survivors while reshaping a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates low-income communities of color.
“He will be the person who will do the most good for the most people,” she said of Bragg, while noting the endorsement is her own personal choice, and not that of her organization, Reform the Sex Crimes Unit.
Hoechstetter’s group announced in March it would back three candidates in the race: Bragg, a former federal prosecutor; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to the Brooklyn DA; and former Manhattan assistant DA Diana Florence.
“We know there’s so much more to be done to reform a criminal justice system that is sexist, racist and classist,” she said.
Finding the right balance: The quandary for sex crime survivors is some of the policy reforms popular with the progressive left are difficult for sexual assault survivors to imagine.
In a report issued in March, Reform the SCU discussed the notion of restorative justice in particular — an approach that emphasizes bringing perpetrators and victims together to devise a resolution.
“Most of the panel agreed that restorative justice should be part of a range of options offered victims but find it unimaginable in violent crimes like rape and sexual assault of minors or in cases by serial offenders,” their report found. “There was also a concern that victims not feel pressured to seek such resolutions by an office desperate to reduce carceral punishments.”
Hoechstetter was confident Bragg could “address the public health crisis of sex crimes while also addressing the problem of mass incarceration.”
Bragg’s platform involves creating a dedicated a sex crimes unit that reports directly to the Manhattan DA. Prosecutors on that team would focus on those investigations exclusively and staff would include counselors, medical professionals and investigators.
Key to the approach would be getting the DA’s office involved as soon as a complaint is made.
“Often people go to the police first and their search for justice is quashed at that level,” Hoechstetter said. In Bragg’s model, “if you go to the NYPD first, DA staff will be involved at the beginning of the investigation. That’s really important.”
Bragg’s plan also calls for examining institutions that may be enabling or shielding sexual predators.
“Marissa Hoechstetter has been courageous in her leadership to transform the Manhattan DA sex crimes unit to deliver justice for survivors,” Bragg said in a statement. “I’m honored and humbled to have her support and look forward to working with her to create a high-quality, survivor-centered sex crimes unit that is transparent, trauma-informed, and delivers justice for all.”
Lessons from the Hadden case: Hoechstetter led a 2018 lawsuit against Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian, where her attacker, Robert Hadden, was employed as an OB-GYN. The original suit was brought by 17 women but an attorney for the former patients has recently said it now includes 175 women, some of whom were children at the time of their abuse, accusing Hadden of sexual assault over the span of decades. Among them was Evelyn Yang, wife of mayoral front-runner, Andrew Yang.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office had negotiated a deal with Hadden in 2016 where he’d lose his medical license, but serve no jail time and avoid registering as a sex offender.
Years later, in large part because of the advocacy of Hoechstetter and others, Hadden was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office on six counts of unlawful sexual abuse — each count carrying a potential 20-year prison sentence.
Hoechstetter and many others saw Vance’s initial actions as a part of a pattern of going easy on white, powerful men and the institutions where they worked.
“Most of the coverage of my story is why didn’t Hadden go to jail,” she said. “I’m about, ‘Let’s back up and talk about why he was allowed to work there, why the DA didn’t do a more thorough investigation.'”
In some cases, she said, “maybe we can’t go after the sex crime but maybe we can go after the institution. … It could be a signal of other things happening.”
Of the three candidates backed by Reform the SCU, Hoechstetter is choosing the man. She said her support is predicated not on gender, but on who she thinks is the most qualified.
“Some of the worst misogynists that I have encountered were women in the DA’s office; people who lied to me; people who asked for his sex offender status to be reduced,” she said.
A significant part of the next DA’s job will be convincing survivors to come forward after so many years of the wealthy and privileged avoiding justice, Hoechstetter said.
“In endorsing Alvin, I’m going to hold him accountable,” she said. “Part of what I think is unfortunate is the trust that Vance has lost. I think it’s going to take a lot to repair that trust.”