The Story Behind A Campaign Line: Did Clinton Laugh At A Rape Victim?

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Hillary Clinton looks on during the second presidential debate. In 1975 Clinton was the court appointed lawyer for a man accused of raping Kathy Shelton, who was in the audience that night.

When the presidential candidates debated last month for the second time, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton once laughed at a victim of rape. The allegation stems from a case that Clinton worked as a young lawyer in 1975 — she defended one of two men accused of raping then-12-year-old Kathy Shelton.

Trump featured Shelton in a press conference that was broadcast on Facebook Live ahead of the debate and then brought her in to sit with the audience. Trump spoke about Shelton onstage, arguing Clinton mistreated her:

"One of the women, who is a wonderful woman, at 12 years old, was raped — at 12. Her client — she represented, got him off," Trump said. "And she's seen laughing on two separate occasions, laughing at the girl who was raped. Kathy Shelton, that young woman, is here with us tonight."

Trump's claim was that Clinton laughed at Shelton in an interview in the 1980s in which she talked about the case. Clinton replied that Trump was just changing the subject from his treatment of women.

Shelton told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that on that day in 1975 she was stopped while riding her bike to church and beaten, raped and dumped out of a truck.

Two men were caught. One was underage. The other faced criminal charges. Hear her tell her story to Inskeep (warning, it is disturbing):

The local prosecutor was Mahlon Gibson, who still remembers that 1975 case.

"This particular defendant was wanting a female attorney," Gibson tells NPR.

Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, was teaching at a nearby law school. The judge deferred to the defendant's wishes for a female attorney and assigned the case to Clinton.

"I didn't know who he had appointed until I got a call from Ms. Rodham," he said. "She was pretty upset. She said, 'I want you to get me off of this case. I just don't want to handle it. It's not my kinda case.' I said, 'Ms. Rodham, I can't help you. I didn't appoint you. The judge appointed you, and you're going to have to contact him.' Usually when you're appointed by a judge to help out in a court system, you do it. You just don't want to get the judge cross with you."

As the prosecutor recalls it, Rodham tried to get out of it.

"She apparently went to the judge, and he refused to let her out," Gibson said. "And at that point, she fired all guns. She mounted an excellent defense, I'll give her credit for that."

Gibson says she challenged the physical evidence, and also raised questions about the victim's story and her credibility. With the case looking doubtful, prosecutors accepted a plea bargain. The attacker received a short prison term and a fine.

This 1975 story would not enter the record again until 1984. That's when Clinton talked about the case on audiotape with a writer hired to write a profile for Esquire that was never published. That audiotape is the basis for Trump's claim that Clinton laughed at a rape victim.

In the tape — which is low quality — Clinton says she had her client take a polygraph test. He passed, she says, and adds with a chuckle, it "forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs":

She chuckles again when saying that prosecutors mishandled evidence — underwear from which they'd cut out the vital part of the fabric. "Yes, indeed," she says, "I had a right to see the evidence":

Roy Reed is the magazine writer who made the tape.

"She and I were the only two people in this room when this interview took place, and I guess that makes me the only real witness to what actually happened," said Reed. After reviewing the transcript decades later, Reed says Clinton never laughed at a rape victim.

"She was laughing at the vagaries of the legal system that play out every day across America in one way or another," he told NPR.

Shelton has a different interpretation.

"To me she's saying, they're guilty, and she's laughing about it," she said.

Shelton said for many years, she had no idea the defense lawyer was that Hillary Rodham. She finally found out when a Newsday reporter looked her up for a piece published in 2008. Initially, as quoted in the article, Shelton was understanding.

"I have to understand that she was representing Taylor," Shelton had said. "I'm sure Hillary was just doing her job."

However, she told NPR, as she better grasped the story, she does feel Clinton traumatized her a second time in the justice system.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson fact-checked during last month's debate, in response to the 2008 Newsday article, a Clinton spokesman said, "As an attorney and an officer of the court, she had an ethical and legal obligation to defend him to the fullest extent of the law. To act otherwise would have constituted a breach of her professional responsibilities."

Shelton's lawyer today is Candice Jackson. She argues that Clinton went too far, by questioning the victim's reliability.

"And I think that's what Kathy was expressing, too, that she understands that Hillary Rodham at the time was doing her job as an attorney. It's the methods that Hillary chose to engage in that leave a bitter taste," she said.

Ultimately, here's what's known.

Two men raped Shelton in 1975. Hillary Clinton was assigned to defend one suspect and in doing that job, she shortened his prison term. She later scoffed at the idea of that man having been able to pass a polygraph test.

Shelton signaled what she thinks now by appearing at the debate in support of Trump. Gibson reached a different conclusion and is voting for Clinton.

"I was impressed with her ability. I didn't like the outcome of the case, but that was just because we didn't have enough evidence," he said.

He insists Clinton did nothing wrong, even though she outmaneuvered his office in 1975.

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A previous version of this story misspelled Roy Reed's last name as Reid.