Sexual Assault Cases Rarely Reported, Difficult To Prosecute
When it comes to sexual assault in the U.S., the majority of victims will not make a report, and Wyoming is not much different than the rest of the country.
Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley has been involved in sexual assault investigations since 1974. He said he’s come across many cases where he knew a rape took place, but he wasn’t able to move forward with it
“That’s one of the biggest frustrations about being in this job is knowing something occurred and not being able to prove it,” said O’Malley.
When it comes to investigating sexual assault a medical exam oftentimes provides the only physical evidence. However, victims don’t always come forward right away, so that evidence isn’t always collected.
O’Malley added that the fact intercourse took place isn’t always a sign of guilt.
“The presence of semen or something like that during the medical, legal examination of a victim really doesn’t tell you anything,” said O’Malley. “Just confirms the fact that there was sexual contact.”
O’Malley said cases that involve people that are acquaintances or romantically involved are the most difficult ones to prove. He says it becomes a matter of he-said-she-said, and that’s especially true when alcohol or drugs are involved.
“That doesn’t mean that those are not prosecutable,” said O’Malley. “Because we certainly do do that, but you can kind of understand where it might be a much more difficult to convince a jury of twelve that there was an assault beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Long-time Sheridan County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Redle said in order to take a case to trial, a prosecutor needs to believe there is a reasonable likelihood a conviction will happen. Redle said that means the evidence needs to be strong and clear.
“You can have an insufficiency of evidence to bring the charge, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a sexual assault,” said Redle. “It means that your evidence was insufficient to go forward.
"I think the culture is just so much, 'well what were you wearing? And how much did you have to drink? And why weren't you smarter? And you should have made better choices.' And it's so easy to victim blame. My eyes were opened in such a way because I finally understood."
Redle said he’s concerned that some prosecutors and law enforcement may look at insufficient evidence as the same thing as a false report, and that’s incorrect. Sheriff O’Malley pointed out that false reporting of sexual violence is low.
“You should know that it’s extremely difficult for someone to report that something as unacceptable as themselves or their body being violated, it’s just extremely difficult to do,” said O’Malley. “It takes a really strong motivation to make a report in the first place.”
But getting a rape conviction is tricky. One of the problems are the myths surrounding rape. As a prosecutor, Redle has learned that many jurors believe that sexual assaults are perpetrated by a stranger and that there should be a great deal of physical violence that will lead to signs of injury, and that victims will report the incident immediately.
“That is the way that rape is most often depicted in movies and on TV, and so we get it into our heads that that is what a real rape looks like,” said Redle.
Another issue in the courtroom is victim blaming, and Redle said no other crime invokes as much victim blaming as sexual assault does. Redle said he thinks some jurors use it as a self-protective mechanism.
“What was the mistake that they made that lead to them being victimized that I wouldn’t have committed and will make me feel safer?” said Redle.
Educating jurors is important for convictions, but Redle said in order to really address rape culture, education needs to begin out in the community.
Tara Muir with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault said, “Boy, do we need to get out there and educate everybody.”
She said people need to better understand what sexual assault looks like. The rapist is usually someone that the victim knows, and that can lead to a delay in reporting. And there are other factors.
“Often when a survivor starts disclosing, they’re not telling the full story, they’re testing the waters,” said Muir. “Am I going to get support, or am I going to get questioned? Am I going to get blamed? Am I going to end up in the news, depending on who I’m accusing? Those are huge factors.”
In an effort to educate, the Coalition is currently rolling out pilot projects in Park and Sweetwater County with sexual assault response teams that are made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, victim support services and other related agencies.
Muir said the goal is to improve how sexual assault cases are treated.
“Maybe not specifically about individual cases, but how the system works and get a lot of good education and training on these rape myths, and look at the way their system operates so that they see things they might do perpetuating those myths, or not,” Muir said.
Aimee Kidd is a sexual assault victim who lives in Casper. She recently complained that her case was neglected, but even she admitted there was a time she subscribed to myths surrounding rape.
“I think the culture is just so much, ‘well what were you wearing? And how much did you have to drink? And why weren’t you smarter? And you should have made better choices,’” said Kidd. “And it’s so easy to victim blame. My eyes were opened in such a way because I finally understood.”
The Coalition’s Muir said they need to get to the point where communities start believing victims, rather than just believing offenders.