Sexual assault cases call for better investigation

Rebecca Trotter-Moore

Daniel  and Jennifer liked each other. Attending the same university, they found themselves together one night and had consensual sex. About five days later, Jennifer accused Daniel of sexual assault.

The initial outcry —  Jennifer’s account of the assault — was made on campus. Later she filed a formal criminal complaint. Ultimately, Daniel went to trial for sexual assault.

In today’s legal environment, individuals accused of sexual assault are presumed guilty. This should be unlikely within a justice system based on the presumption of innocence. While I trust the workings of our justice system, it is my opinion that the investigation process of sexual assault cases is broken.

As a state-trained victims’ advocate and criminal defense investigator, I am aware of the training provided to, and practices followed by, advocates, investigators and prosecutors. Sexual assault cases are difficult at best. Addressing an accusation makes most people uncomfortable.

At one time sexual assault was thought to be about sex. The idea that sex could be about power was inconceivable. This old thinking allowed for the common defense, that the victims, who were willing participants, regretted their actions. Victims were assumed to be lying. They were drilled with questions; their personal lives were attacked. Women stopped complaining. Men never came forward.

The old process needed to change. However, the pendulum swing toward victim’s advocacy brought a new extreme: absolute belief of the victim’s outcry and allegation.

I agree with believing the victim. It is essential to building trust. Victims must trust the first person they tell. They have to have trust in law enforcement and the prosecution, whom they rely on from complaint to conviction. Unfortunately, absolute belief in an accusation without question denies the accused a defense.

You cannot prove a negative. That’s the purpose of a justice system designed to burden the prosecution with proving guilt. An investigation should reveal the truth and evidence to corroborate the claim. The most important part of this revelation is asking questions of all involved, including the victim. The practice must be to trust but verify, not believe without question.

It’s time we bring balance to the investigative process of these cases. This requires educating young women and men. These are the basics: Males and females, young and old, are sexually assaulted. Those who are straight and those who are gay are victimized. The promiscuous, monogamous and virginal are assaulted. The poor and the rich suffer attacks. You get the picture. Know too that both males and females are assailants. Assailants are strangers and friends. People can even be victimized by their spouses.

Complaints are sometimes made by victims who are not ready, or who are unable, to tell the entire truth. Some victims exaggerate. Others may accuse someone other than their true assailant. Still, some victims create their stories for their own benefit.

In Jennifer’s case, it was simply a matter of protecting her reputation and hiding her sexual activity from her parents. She wasn’t assaulted. This demonstrates the importance of a thorough investigation. For the victims, the accused and the integrity of the justice system, determining the facts is vital.

Jennifer’s perpetuation of the myth, that victims are liars, adds to the pain for true victims. Her selfish lie could have caused Daniel to serve jail time and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Daniel was found not guilty.
Daniel was lucky.

Editor’s note: The names used in this column are fictional.

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