Compelling film spotlights rape injustice

Movie Review

On Easter Eve 1991, the normalcy of 76-year-old Florence Holway’s rural life came to a shocking, abrupt end when a 25-year-old intruder broke into her home and brutally raped her. The horrifying attack marked the beginning of the New Hampshire grandmother’s 12-year struggle to bring her rapist to justice — and bring change to a flawed legal system.

The compelling film, “A Rape In A Small Town: The Florence Holway Story,” which HBO premiered Jan. 11, details the vicious crime as well as the story’s even more disturbing wrong: how Holway was denied her day in court when the felon brokered a plea agreement that significantly reduced his jail time.

Told through exclusive at-home interviews, as well as footage shot during a harrowing 2003 parole hearing, this candid documentary includes a shocking interview with Holway, conducted on the bed where the rape took place, and shows how her rural life changed forever.

The assault lasted four hours. Holway finally escaped her attacker, John LaForest, after he fell asleep on top of her. She made it to safety at her son’s house nearby. Although the police captured the rapist in Holway’s bed, the county attorney still claimed there would not be enough physical evidence to convict him. Holway was subjected to a rape test, and despite rectal and vaginal bleeding due to bruising, there was no semen present because LaForest had worn a condom, and thus, according to the laws, no physical proof that she had been raped.

Instead, LaForest was offered a plea bargain, made without Holway’s knowledge or consent, that did not include all five charges brought against him: rape, sodomy, breaking and entering, assault and false imprisonment. By pleading guilty only to rape and sodomy, LaForest was able to avoid a trial and potentially receive a lesser sentence than if Holway had been able to have her day in court.

“I was raped twice,” Holway says, “once by my assailant and once by the inept justice system.” In an attempt to force a trial, she took her case public by going to the press. The Associated Press picked up her story, originally buried in the back of a cautious local newspaper, and before long she became a national public figure, telling her story to anyone and everyone willing to listen.

Her community rallied around her — “It was almost like it hadn’t happened until they knew who it happened to” — as did the rest of the nation, but local authorities wouldn’t budge in their refusal to have a trial. They are “a bunch of conservative Republicans,” Holway says, “who hang on to the status quo like grim death.”

Although she admits her emotional scars will never heal, Holway, now 89 and confined mostly to a wheelchair, takes solace in the fact that her outspokenness ultimately helped usher in change. The New Hampshire Legislature formed an ad hoc committee to review the laws regarding rape, and has since changed the definition of rape by broadening the scope and not requiring semen as physical evidence; brought longer sentences for convicted rapists; and made it mandatory that victims be notified about potential plea bargains, and accept them before they are carried out.

The stirring documentary, which the filmmakers premiered at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in May 2004, culminates at a 12-year parole hearing for LaForest, where Holway confronts her attacker face to face, and challenges the parole board to keep him locked up. Despite having twice attended the prison’s sex-offenders program, the parole board does not believe LaForest fully understands the impact of the crime he committed, and they deny him immediate parole.

A year-and-a-half after Holway’s appearance before the parole board, LaForest was moved to a halfway house and work program. Within two months, he was accused of harassment by a female employment agency worker, and subsequently placed back in prison to attend the sex offender’s program once again.

The Philadelphia-based filmmakers, Jeffery and Charlene Chapman, wanted to document Holway’s ordeal after reading an article about her in Yankee magazine. Both worked regular jobs during the week and traveled to New Hampshire on weekends for five years to make “A Rape in a Small Town.”

Holway continues to live alone in the same rural farmhouse where the rape took place. “Two things I lost [in the attack], my teeth and my peace of mind, but you can’t have everything,” she says. An avid painter, she has slowly rekindled her love of life and painting. Holway has made good on the promise she made to herself during the attack. By spearheading a tireless crusade to change rape laws, she has helped other victims, as well as herself, obtain a measure of justice.

crummel@pww.org