Thompson Coburn Duo Lead 'Army Of Women' In Documentary

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Elizabeth Myers
Elizabeth Myers
Jennifer Ecklund
Jennifer Ecklund
In waging an uphill battle against the city of Austin, Thompson Coburn LLP partners Jennifer Ecklund and Elizabeth Myers secured a groundbreaking settlement for sexual assault survivors whose cases were never prosecuted, but what they discovered was that standing up for the survivors meant more to them than that legal victory.

"It was stunning to realize that just the process of being present for them and continuing to fight for them meant more to them than what we achieved," Ecklund told Law360.

That fight is now the subject of a new documentary, "An Army of Women," set to make its debut Friday at South by Southwest. Filmmaker Julie Lunde Lillesæter, known for using cinema to explain complex societal issues, followed the attorneys and some of the 15 plaintiffs as the case against Austin and the Travis County District Attorney's Office pushed forward.

The lawyers said Lillesæter was living in Austin at the time and had learned of the case through news reports.

The film captures the survivors' journeys, from hopeless and fearful to empowered and purposeful, as well as the personal relationship that developed between Ecklund and Myers. The attorneys married while the case was pending, and scenes from their wedding are depicted in the film.

"I had met Jennifer over the course of interviewing at our prior firm, but we hadn't really worked together. Without this case, I don't think we would have found each other," said Myers, adding that she saw a "shared passion" in Ecklund "for doing the right thing no matter what and fighting for people who really need it" as the two worked together on the case.

The litigation ultimately ended in a settlement in 2021 in which each plaintiff received $75,000, and the agencies agreed to a series of changes in handling sexual assault cases involving women.

But the path to those reforms — and a theme throughout the film — shows how law enforcement and prosecutors failed the female victims, the attorneys said.

"The institutions that were supposed to help them and protect them and fight for them were saying, 'You're not worth it,'" Myers said. "This was causing extreme trauma to them. I learned in the course of this case that it's not necessary to get to victory in the end, it's important to have someone stand up and fight for you and believe you. They were experiencing the exact opposite."

How the Case Was Born

The film begins with a shot of stacks of legal documents.

Known by the pseudonym Amy Smith in the class action, a survivor whose real name is Mary looks at her 2008 report to the Austin Police Department, which resulted in no action being taken against her attacker.

"We're in 2023," Mary says in the film. "I said I wasn't going to cry. Fifteen years is a long time."

Mary, who used the pseudonym Amy Smith, Marina and Hanna are among the 15 plaintiffs involved in a class action brought against the City of Austin and the Travis County District Attorney's Office for a systemic failure to investigate and prosecute sex crimes against women. The survivors talk about the impact of those institutions' inaction on their lives in this clip from the documentary, "An Army of Women." (Courtesy of Differ Media)

A moment later, Mary says of Ecklund, "When I met Jenny, I knew she believed me."

As the film cuts to Ecklund in her office, she marvels at what her clients have endured and points to an abysmal decadeslong record of declining to prosecute sexual assault cases involving women by multiple Travis County district attorneys. Ecklund notes that one of the few prosecutions of a sexual offender she could find involved a male victim who was assaulted by a man who had been previously accused of rape by five different women whose cases were never prosecuted.

"At the end of the day, laws are not worth anything if no one is going to enforce them," Ecklund says in the film. "Frankly our society doesn't take rape seriously and I think it's because it happens to women."

Ecklund told Law360 said that her sister, who is a longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors and who has "been working on these issues for years and years," mentioned Mary's case to her "in the course of a regular sisterly discussion."

Mary had been getting help from a legal aid attorney and there "was just no more that lawyer could do because the only thing left was to sue," Ecklund said, noting that organizations that provide free legal services with state funding can't use state dollars to take legal action against agencies like a district attorney's office or a police department.

Ecklund, who is based in Dallas, said she and her sister believed it would be difficult to find an Austin lawyer willing to take on the case, so she agreed to do it. At the time, Ecklund was at Thompson & Knight LLP, which is now part of Holland & Knight LLP. Myers said Thompson & Knight attorneys in the Austin office were asked in a firm email if they had any misgivings about the lawsuit before it was filed.

Myers, who was at Thompson & Knight in Austin at the time, said she asked to see a copy of the complaint Ecklund was preparing.

"I read the complaint and I thought, 'I don't have a problem with it, I just want to work on it,'" Myers said.

The case grew from three named plaintiffs to eight and ultimately to 15 once the original complaint was filed and media coverage brought a flood of calls to Ecklund and Myers. During the pendency of the case, Ecklund and Myers both left Thompson & Knight for Thompson Coburn, and Myers moved to Dallas.

Ecklund and Myers said they were "shocked" at the pushback they got from officials in the Texas capital, which is seen as the most progressive municipality in Texas.

"I fully expected they would say, 'Oh this is terrible,' after the lawsuit was filed and immediately do something about it, but they fought us, and some never acknowledged the truth that was there," Myers said. "It made me realize that it's not necessarily political but how society conditions all of us not to believe women."

At the time the original class complaint was filed in the summer of 2018, then-District Attorney Margaret Moore, who is depicted in news clips in the documentary, publicly stated that her office doesn't bring sexual assault cases because the law made it too difficult to win. Moore also said she didn't believe Travis County juries would convict.

"They're very focused on their win rates, and I understand that, it's a meaningful metric, but it's not the only metric," Myers said. "I really do believe that even if many of these women had their cases go through the system and gotten a 'not guilty,' they would have suffered less than being told at the front end, 'You're not worth it.'"

Myers and Ecklund said they hope district attorneys will never blame a community of prospective jurors "when the community hasn't been given the opportunity yet."

"It was repeatedly suggested that the jury pool in Travis County would be unwilling to convict, but how do you know if you never bring the cases," Myers said. "If you never indict the cases, you can't get to a plea deal, either. It really was gatekeeping at both the police and district attorney levels. I had no idea what was happening in Austin, and I was living in Austin at the time. Once I knew, I couldn't unknow it."

A Settlement and an Apology

Moore lost her reelection bid in 2020, and her successor, José Garza, immediately took steps to change the way prosecutors in Austin handle cases involving sexual violence against women. The documentary includes scenes of the plaintiffs heading to the polls and later supporting each other and sharing laughs as they join together on a video call for election night in 2020.

Undaunted by a lower court's dismissal, Ecklund and Myers managed to negotiate a settlement with the city while a higher court was reviewing the case. In addition to the monetary awards, the agencies agreed to big changes in funding, training and staffing related to sexual assault cases involving women.

As part of the agreement, police and prosecutors will undergo regular training related to sexual assault. Police have established a "soft interview room," a space appointed more like a living area that trauma-informed counseling advocates tout as helping the fact-gathering process because survivors feel more emotionally and physically safe.

"To me, all of the changes we were able to secure were as meaningful as anything else we did," Ecklund said. "That first step for many of these victims when they make an outcry is to interact with a police officer. If that person either doesn't believe them or has been conditioned to think it's a 'he said, she said,' from the outset, then that's how the case flows from there."

Ecklund added that while the monetary awards "were important to make them feel they had been heard and validated," it was "all of the changes they were able to make, and frankly the apologies they got, that meant more to them than anything else."

The film's ending includes scenes of an Austin City Council meeting where several of the survivors briefly address the officials before a vote approving the settlement is taken.

Mary recites the case numbers assigned to her, one by the police department and the other by a district attorney's office that declined to prosecute her rapist, and tells the members that before the settlement, she felt she had been reduced to those numbers and "just documents."

As the camera pans around, Myers and Ecklund are in the crowd, along with their clients. Several of the council members delivered heartfelt apologies directly to the survivors and the Austin Police Department's interim chief, Robin Henderson, remarked on her commitment to victims of sexual assault.

Transformation and Lessons Learned

The documentary also illustrates how certain plaintiffs' lives were transformed as a result of the case.

By the end of the film, Amy Smith is no longer using the pseudonym which she said at the beginning of the documentary was necessary because "my rapist is still free." The sadness that clung to her in the first few scenes of the film is replaced with a countenance of empowerment in the end.

"The first time I met Mary she never even looked at me," Ecklund told Law360. "She was so tired of the system and people saying they couldn't do anything. She just didn't trust anybody. Now she's this vibrant person back out in the world again, doing art. She's working on issues, she's present and making changes in the system. To see her transformation was earth-shatteringly wonderful."

Hanna, who was an unnamed plaintiff when the first case was lodged, changes from a hesitant victim of a date rape to an advocate. The film shows Hanna seated at a conference table in a business suit as she meets with a large group of uniformed police officers in her role as a paid consultant advising the Austin Police Department on its handling of sex crimes.

Myers and Ecklund beamed when they explained that one of the plaintiffs is planning to attend law school, one has become a paralegal and another has bought a condo. Ecklund said that aside from finding her life partner, the "most important and meaningful" part of working on the case was "watching what happened with all the survivors over time."

Ecklund and Myers said the documentary beautifully captures the catharsis the survivors experienced after realizing they were finally being fought for, and that the film should send a powerful message to police and district attorneys.

They said the film shows why district attorneys "should bring the cases that justice requires," not just the ones they know they can win.

"The victory wasn't in getting validated by a court," Myers said. "The victory in the end for the survivors was that lots of people along the way said, 'We believe you, we'll fight for you.' It was the fight itself that transformed them, not a verdict."

--Editing by Leah Bennett.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us accesstojustice@law360.com.

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