Kathleen Ham, Who Met Her Rapist Twice in Court, Dies at 73

She saw something moving on her fire escape. In the next instant, a man smashed through her window and raped her at knifepoint. A neighbor heard her screams and called the police, who caught the assailant near her apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. At his trial in 1974, the jury deliberated for eight days without reaching a verdict, and he was let go.

More than three decades later, in 2005, the man was retried; the woman testified again, and this time, he was found guilty and sent to jail.

In the interim, the criminal justice system and society had undergone major changes regarding rape. One was improved DNA technology. Another was that the victim was no longer ashamed to be identified in public.

Her name was Kathleen Ham. At the time of the crime she was 26, a young professional who had come to New York from California to make her mark in the publishing industry.

Instead, she made legal history. After the man’s conviction, the notoriety of her case — backed by the lobbying muscle of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, and the National Organization for Women — helped persuade New York State to drop its five-year statute of limitations for first-degree rape, making it easier to prosecute old cases. (Hers could be prosecuted a second time so many years later because the first prosecution fell within the five years.)

Ms. Ham died on Jan. 20 at her home in Santa Monica. She was 73.

The cause was complications of cardiac and pulmonary problems, said Marjorie Costello, a longtime friend and journalist in New York.

Winning convictions in rape cases has always been difficult. It was even harder in the 1960s and ’70s, when New York required corroboration by a witness, and the victim’s sexual history was fair game.

In Ms. Ham’s case, a doctor, writing in her medical record, doubted she had been raped because she seemed too calm. At trial, the defense grilled her on the stand for a day and a half, suggesting she was a prostitute who had fought with her pimp. The prevailing view was that in some way, she had asked for it. The jury was deadlocked.

“I was shattered,” Ms. Ham told NBC News. “I lost all of my self-confidence. You become very depressed. You feel nothing is worth it. I mean, I just kind of like looked at life and said, ‘It’s really overrated.’”

A year after Ms. Ham’s trial, the suspect, who went by Clarence Williams and Fletcher Anderson Worrell, was charged in a separate sexual assault. In a deal, he pleaded guilty to that assault and to raping Ms. Ham. But he then withdrew that plea and jumped bail, vanishing in 1976.

Ms. Ham left too. She moved back to California and went to law school, partly out of frustration with the legal system.

“When I left New York, I said, ‘I will kill myself before I ever get on the stand again,’” she told NBC.

In California she had terrible insomnia. Knowing Mr. Worrell was out there somewhere, she told friends, she would stand by her window with a butcher knife in her hand or sleep by her door so she could make a fast escape.

She never married, and attributed that directly to the rape. “I just didn’t want to be kissed,” Ms. Ham told The New York Times. “I didn’t like to be touched by strangers.”

In the early 1990s, when her practice as a defense lawyer in insurance cases was thriving, she developed a phobia that made it impossible for her to enter a courtroom. She had to give up trial litigation.

ImageMs. Ham in 2005, discussing her case at the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau. He used her case to help persuade New York State to drop its five-year statute of limitations for first-degree rape. 
Credit…Keith Bedford for The New York Times

Mr. Worrell, meanwhile, from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, went on to commit at least two dozen other rapes in New Jersey and Maryland, where he was called the “Silver Spring rapist.”

But he slipped up when he tried to buy a gun in Georgia. A background check revealed an open warrant for him in New York for skipping bail and he was brought back to face the rape charges in Ms. Ham’s case.

By this time, prosecutors had become more skilled in sex crime cases, and the system overall was more respectful of victims. Revised laws placed fewer burdens on them, and juries were more sympathetic.

And more sophisticated DNA techniques gave prosecutors powerful new tools. In Ms. Ham’s case, her underwear from three decades earlier had been saved in a file, and a DNA sample recovered from it was an exact match for Mr. Worrell.

But would Ms. Ham agree to testify? When prosecutors called her, she said “Yes,” to her own surprise.

The fact that Mr. Worrell had been implicated in so many other rapes hardened her resolve. On the eve of the second trial, she went public with her story and identified herself by name in a front-page article in The Times.

“He’s been out there for 32 years,” Ms. Ham said in a voice turned gravelly by years of chain-smoking. “And I’ve been in my own private jail.”

At the second trial, the defense lawyer did not cast doubts on her credibility and let her off the stand after 12 minutes. The jury returned a guilty verdict in two hours.

Afterward, nine other women came forward and said Mr. Worrell had raped them too.

He was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison; combined with a life sentence he earned later in Maryland, Mr. Worrell, now in his mid-70s, is all but certain to die behind bars.

Ms. Ham said after the trial that the experience had been positive.

“I think the minute when I blurted out ‘You can use my name, I have nothing to be ashamed of,’ my whole life changed,” she told NBC. “When I said that, I got my voice back.”

But friends said that even after the gratification of seeing her attacker brought to justice, Ms. Ham remained deeply scarred.

“It was the rape compounded with participating in both trials, in which she felt re-victimized and re-traumatized,” said Lilla Russell, a close friend from college and law school and a retired psychotherapist. “She still had a lot of pain and anger.”

Kathleen Helen Ham was born on April 9, 1947, in Englewood, N.J., the youngest of four children. The family lived for a time in nearby Teaneck, but when her father, Harold Ham, who was a chemical engineer, became an executive with a cosmetics company, they moved to California. Her mother, Katherine (MacDonald), was a homemaker.

Information on survivors was not immediately available. But Ms. Ham was close to extended family in New England and was proud of the fact that one of her ancestors, Henry Samson, had been a passenger on the Mayflower.

Kathleen went to the University of California Berkeley, where she majored in political science and graduated in 1969. “We spent most of our time going to protests and being totally involved with the Free Speech movement,” Ms. Russell said.

Her dream at the time was to be a backup singer for Motown groups. “She knew all the words and would do all the moves to perfection,” Ms. Russell said.

Ms. Ham traveled in Europe for a time, then settled in New York, where she worked as an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. When she returned to California, she earned her law degree at Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles in 1981.

“Kathy was brilliant,” Ms. Russell said. “Instead of studying for the bar exam, she watched ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘The Rockford Files’” and still passed.”

Ms. Ham died on Jan. 20 at her home in Santa Monica. She was 73.

The cause was complications of cardiac and pulmonary problems, said Marjorie Costello, a longtime friend and journalist in New York.

Winning convictions in rape cases has always been difficult. It was even harder in the 1960s and ’70s, when New York required corroboration by a witness, and the victim’s sexual history was fair game.

In Ms. Ham’s case, a doctor, writing in her medical record, doubted she had been raped because she seemed too calm. At trial, the defense grilled her on the stand for a day and a half, suggesting she was a prostitute who had fought with her pimp. The prevailing view was that in some way, she had asked for it. The jury was deadlocked.

In the early 1990s, when her practice as a defense lawyer in insurance cases was thriving, she developed a phobia that made it impossible for her to enter a courtroom. She had to give up trial litigation.

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