Q & A: Samuel Schultz’s Lawyer Ethan Krasnoo on Litigating Sexual Harassment & Assault Cases

By Francisco Salazar

Ethan Krasnoo is a partner of RPJ Law who represented Samuel Schultz in the case which is believed to be the first time that a same-sex rape by and of adults has been prosecuted in Houston, if not the State of Texas.

Throughout his career, Krasnoo has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community having provided pro bono services to asylum seekers, prisoners, and struggling artists, and has volunteered with The Trevor Project.

In 2010, The national LGBTQ immigrant rights organization, Immigration Equality, awarded Krasnoo the Safe Haven Award for his pro bono work. He has also served on the New York City Bar Association Entertainment Law Committee and has repeatedly been selected as a Super Lawyers New York Metro Rising Star.

Krasnoo spoke to OperaWire about working with Schultz and his work as a lawyer on cases of sexual assault and harassment.

OperaWire: How did you get involved in cases of harassment and abuse? And how did you first come across Samuel Schultz’s case?

Ethan Krasnoo: [Amongst other areas of the law], my background is in sexual abuse and sexual harassment cases, but primarily from an employment standpoint and primarily in a civil action. And Sam’s matter was different and unique in the sense that it was a criminal matter.

So there is an Assistant District Attorney who is also working on the matter on behalf of the government in Texas on the criminal matter. But I got involved actually through a not-for-profit organization, the National Women’s Law Center. It’s connected with an organization that also provides funding for matters related to sexual harassment and sexual abuse, called the Times Up Legal Defense Fund.

So that’s the group that connected me with Sam and also supported the efforts. And this was a unique side because the matter was criminal. But I think it’s very important for victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse to have a civil lawyer where possible because the District Attorney, their lawyer for the government is not their lawyer. And so their communications are not privileged and not private. There may be questions that the victim has that are not appropriate or cannot be answered by the District Attorney.

And a victim needs to presumably if the trial commences, get on the stand and relive the trauma and explain for that. They need someone who can answer their questions, who can help prepare them for that, and address many other matters that come up in court.

So this is an area that I’ve been pursuing. It is unique in the sense that you know most victims in a criminal case do not have a private lawyer. And again this was made available through the Times Up Legal Defense Fund. I certainly would advocate where available that civil lawyers get involved in and assist victims in this capacity.

OW: Do you find that that’s been an obstacle when you’re dealing with some of these cases or has it been easier to work around it after the MeToo movement?

EK: Proving a case is always a challenge and it comes down to the available evidence. There is also circumstantial evidence and credibility of the witnesses. So it is a case-by-case dependent analysis. It’s pretty rare to have video footage of sexual assault or sexual harassment, and in today’s day and age, you know, there are ways to create, as we know, digital things that did not occur. So it depends on the individual case.

I find often witnesses are more willing to come forward since the MeToo movement started and find support with others. So that does perhaps aid in establishing additional circumstantial evidence to support the claims. Very often a victim will not come forward right away and there are many reasons for that, including trauma, feeling like it’s their fault, and not understanding that what happened was illegal, especially if the person who did it is a person who they trusted.

But of course, when an individual does tell other people, that can also provide support. So, for example, if a victim doesn’t come forward publicly but goes and tells their therapist, in the short term, that therapist has information that can support a claim or if they tell a co-worker or a friend.

I think that more people are willing to come forward and provide support. But it still comes down to whether there’s evidence and that is very case-dependent.

OW: In the case of Samuel Schultz, there was going to be a trial that eventually went to a plea deal. How does it feel to prepare for a case and be in the mental state for a trial and then know that it ends in a plea deal?

EK: I don’t fully come at it from a background of criminal law. So the District Attorney may have a different view. I can’t speak to how common it is but I can speak to the preference.

And that is a tricky question because, you know, coming at it from the side of the victim, if there’s a guilty verdict, the punishment is potentially going to be bigger than a guilty plea result. But there is more certainty in knowing ahead of time before twelve jurors make a decision about what’s going to happen for everyone.

It is a big risk for the defendant to go through the trial and have the potential of jail if they know that they could avoid it with a plea. It’s also a big risk for the victim to have to relive the trauma on the stand, which is pretty much a necessity if a trial occurs. It’s also difficult to open up about very intimate details to a bunch of strangers who then will make a decision.

If the victim’s goal is to make sure that the perpetrators are prevented from doing the same sexual acts to other individuals as they did to the victim, as is the case with my client, then there is some certainty in a plea deal, in the sense that if there is a certain restriction on those individuals, it is unlikely that the defendants will act in that way.

Of course, the same would be true of a prison sentence.

But again, the risk for the victim is that the whole trial is pursued and then there is no finding of guilt. You don’t always have the evidence to support the truth or to support what happened. It varies case by case, and the results are soemtimes surprising based on what the public is perceiving compared to what a jury determines.

In Sam’s case, it was a unique case in the sense that it involved gay men and we were in Texas. You just never know how a jury is going to respond. So that is something also to keep in consideration. While everyone should be impartial we just don’t know how individuals are going to react.

OW: Are cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment perceived differently? What is your experience and do you think that they are similar circumstances or different?

EK: It’s a complex question. I mean they both can create emotional distress for an individual and physical pain and suffering. I believe they have different connotations in the sense that there are different punishments. There are different laws in the employment sector, and they both can create the same, as I said, emotional distress and/or lead to claims of retaliation.

Of course, they’re defined differently in many ways under the laws, but it’s hard to assess. I don’t really distinguish them in terms of dealing from the employment perspective because the way an individual reacts and the damages associated with the effects are very unique to each individual. Harassment could occur one time or it could occur thousands of times.

OW: Throughout the past years a lot of harassment and assault cases have been first reported in the newspaper. When the case comes to you, do you prefer that the client first comes to you, or is that a nonissue?

E: If an individual has come forward and made the allegations public, then I think that’s very courageous of them. But there are often clients who don’t want public attention and are afraid of what effect it could have on them. And so I think it’s whatever is best for the individual client and the situation.
But I’ve had both.

I’ve had clients come to me where it’s been widely reported. And I don’t have a preference between them.

OW: When you’re working on these cases, how involved emotionally do you feel? How do you as a lawyer release yourself from the emotional issues that you’re working with?

EK: I can’t say I have, and I can’t say I’ve quite figured it out because I do feel for my clients and, to be honest, sometimes I feel like I’m not only acting as a lawyer but a therapist for my client, and I don’t want to shut that off.

On the other hand, you know, my role is to help them find relief in some capacity. And that’s my priority. I do find that sometimes I am very moved by my client’s story and the recounting and what they’re experiencing and going through, and I have a lot of compassion and empathy for my clients and respect their bravery and their ability to communicate about what has happened and what they’re feeling.

But I also find that sometimes I have to just put on my legal hat and make sure that I’m doing the best for my client with that view in mind, and kind of separate it.

I’ll give you an example of a case, like Sam’s, where there’s a victim of sexual abuse who’s going to have to testify in a trial. We’ll presume we don’t know it’s going to settle the morning of, or that there’ll be a plea deal the morning of. My role as a lawyer is to prepare that individual to testify on the stand and be prepared for harsh questioning from the defendant’s counsel. But on the other hand, as a human being and then hopefully an empathetic one, I have to try to avoid that individual reexperiencing the trauma that they’re describing any more than they have to, and I’m feeling for them and what they’ve gone through.

And so, it is a struggle to wear both hats right, to make sure that I’m asking the tough question so that they’re prepared for when that might occur at the trial. But I have to be cognizant that my client is going through it, right, and try to avoid having to relive the experience as much as they can. So it is a tricky situation. I always feel for my clients and I feel grateful that I can try to help them in some capacity. But I do have to wear both my lawyer hat and also make sure that I’m able to see the whole picture too.


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