Many cases have fallen apart because of a backlogged crime lab, traumatized victims and a lack of evidence.
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An audit of 270 rape cases in Salt Lake County shows that a mere 6 percent were prosecuted.
The review, headed by BYU nursing professor and rape examiner Julie Valentine, looked at 30 random police reports in each year from 2003 to 2011. In all 270 cases, victims had consented to rape exams and provided DNA samples to investigators.
But nearly all the cases fell apart.
Most were not forwarded from police departments to the prosecutor's office to be screened for charges. Of those that were, few were charged. Some of those charges later were dropped.
Of the 270 original cases, all of which began with contact with a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner, only 16 resulted in guilty pleas or convictions.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the study "certainly confirms what we've always intuitively known" that adult sex-crime cases are extremely difficult to prosecute.
But rape victim advocates say the study's dismal results show that investigators and prosecutors have not done all they can to make the process more accommodating to victims and more consistent from agency to agency and from case to case.
Who decides the fate of a rape case? • The point at which rape cases stall out is up for debate.
Gill points to study results that show two-thirds of the sampled rape cases never were formally reviewed by the D.A.'s office.
"A lot of the cases never left police stations for screening," said Gill, who was D.A. for only one of the years surveyed.
West Valley City's new police chief Lee Russo said that he discovered rape investigators in years past had been making some prosecutorial judgments on their own. For instance, he said, some cases raise questions about the victim's level of intoxication and ability to consent to sex. The win-ability of such a case is "subjective," Russo said. In the past, investigators may have decided not to pursue such a case.
Russo said he now requires all rape cases to be screened by prosecutors.
In many cases, prosecutors themselves discourage investigators from sending a case to the D.A.'s office, said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who noted that the study's findings do not reflect the informal role of prosecutors during rape investigations.
"When our detectives get a case, it's not that they work in a vacuum and send or choose not to send the case. There is a conversation that takes place with the D.A.'s office," Burbank said. If a prosecutor pre-emptively tells detectives that a case isn't ready for charges, "that does not constitute an official screening," Burbank said.
Police investigators often are more optimistic about cases than are the prosecutors who work to win them in court, Burbank said.
"It's an intimate relationship," Burbank said. "A lot of times we push … and it's frustrating for our detectives."
Of the audited cases officially screened by the prosecutors, only 25 percent were charged. In 2003 and 2008, none of the 60 cases studied resulted in charges.
Valentine warned that the study was designed to fairly represent only the overall prosecution rate for adult rape cases handled by sex assault nurse examiners not necessarily the behavior of individual agencies or outcomes in individual years.
"It is a very narrow study, and I don't think it would be accurate to say that's what was going on in the District Attorney's office over those years," Gill said. He estimated that more than 500 cases were presented to his office's Special Victim's Unit as of September, with charges filed in about half of those. That includes all sex abuse and child abuse cases.
'It's just grueling' • Among the study's most instructive findings was the array of reasons, noted in police reports, that cases fizzled: "Victim did not want to pursue." "Uncooperative victim." "Unable to contact victim."
By far the most common obstacle was that the victims would not or could not participate in their own cases.
"At every step, it's common for [victims] to feel they're not believed," said Rape Recovery Center Director Holly Mullen. "They feel judged. It takes an enormous amount of grit to keep going."
In some cases, the victim's first interview is conducted by a patrol officer with little expertise in sex crimes, Mullen said. Many victims suffer from PTSD, which affects their immediate memories and testimony. Although trauma experts have devised interview techniques for people in distress, few detectives or attorneys have been trained in what Gill described as a "victim-centered approach."
In a case this year, Mullen said, one victim said her police report turned into an inquiry of her own sexual behavior: "How often did you have sex this month, consensually? How much do you typically have sex?" Mullen recounted. "The victim was really troubled by this."
Even if interviews go well most large departments have dedicated rape experts victims may lose resolve in the long wait for physical evidence, Mullen said. If a rape kit is sent for analysis, which is not guaranteed, it typically takes four to five months to process, said State Crime Lab director Jay Henry.
Meanwhile, further contact with investigators and prosecutors may give the victim a bitter taste of the questioning to come.
"They're getting reactions: 'The story is not looking quite as clear, there was drinking involved.' The attorney might be saying, 'This is going to be really hard to prosecute because of conflicting evidence and testimony,'" Mullen said. "We're dealing with people who have lived through some terrible trauma. Ninety percent have low to no income. And it's just grueling. At some point, unless a person has huge determination and a lot of support, it's very hard to have the energy and self-confidence to push these cases on your own."
When victims want to drop a case, there is little investigators can do.
"If the victim is adamant they don't want to go forward, we can't manipulate them to keep going," said Unified Police Department Lt. Justin Hoyal.
'It's the trauma' • Valentine gathered the data as part of a nationwide study by the National Institute of Justice on rape prosecution rates. The national study's pilot research includes two other, unnamed urban sites not a vast body of data, Valentine concedes, but those sites reported similar resources and procedures for rape cases, allowing for some comparison to Salt Lake County.
In the other urban sites, total prosecution rates were 9 and 15 percent, compared to just 6 percent in Salt Lake County. Those sites reported 82 and 84 percent of their audited rape cases were never charged, compared to 91 percent in Salt Lake County.
Gill said he plans in the next 6 months to change how adult rape cases are processed. Unlike child sex crimes, which are uniformly handled by multi-disciplinary teams of victim advocates, medical experts, attorneys and police who specialize in sexual violence, adult rapes have no consistent protocol. Gill said bringing all parties together for adult rape cases would pressure every party to be "on their A-game" for each case, and would ensure continuous care for victims. A holistic approach also enables responders to identify barriers keeping victims from following through with cases and possibly resolve them.
"There is more than enough data to show its success in other kinds of cases," Gill said. "That a similar approach is not being used for adult [rape] victims is really a step back."
Police agencies also are seeking help to better interview rape victims. Donna Kelly, a deputy attorney general and sexual assault resource prosecutor, has been training police and prosecutors around the state in "trauma-informed response" since 2012, when a grant created her position.
"New research on the neurobiology of trauma … [shows that] signs of trauma may be very similar to what police officers have been trained to believe is lying," Kelly said. The results can be devastating for a rape victim.
Starting in January, Kelly will help West Valley City police to revamp their entire rape-response protocol.
"Officers are hungry for this information," she said. "They don't understand the bizarre behavior of victims. Now we have an answer: It's the trauma."
Police agencies meanwhile hope victims aren't discouraged from making reports.
"If suspects are willing to do this to one victim, you find potentially there are other victims involved," Burbank said. "Even if there's not success right away, a lot times we've been able to tie other cases together."