Sexual assault victims navigate grueling path bringing assailants to justice
Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 23:07
Stepping into the College Station Police Station, 20-year-old Stephanie feels sick.
Her mother walks by her side. Somewhere between the parking lot and the station’s front door, she takes Stephanie’s hand in her own.
Stephanie is more than grateful for her support. Without her mother, Stephanie knows she wouldn’t have found the strength to do what she is about to do. But for some reason, she feels like a little girl being led to the principal’s office to be scolded.
“How can I help you?” the receptionist asks.
Her mother leans forward. Even though she whispers, Stephanie is certain everyone in the police station can hear her mom’s reply.
“I need to report a sexual assault.”
Stephanie clears her throat and speaks for the first time.
During summer 2011, Stephanie, Class of 2013, hosted a party at her apartment in celebration of her 20th birthday. Enrolled in summer courses at Texas A&M, she subleased her room from Dave, one of her best friend’s cousins. Excited by the prospect of her first birthday party in College Station, Stephanie invited several people, including Dave and a few of his friends. In Dave’s entourage was Ryan.
“I had only met Ryan recently and hung out with him a couple of times because of our mutual friends,” Stephanie said. “I always felt a little uncomfortable with how flirty he was, but I trusted him because I trusted Dave and the people he hung out with.”
Several dozen people arrived the night of the party. Excited by the turnout, Stephanie planned for everyone to head to Northgate after the party. Stephanie’s night ended much earlier than she expected.
“I hadn’t anticipated all the alcohol my friends would bring as presents,” Stephanie said. “And every time someone took a shot, they wanted to take it with the ‘birthday girl.’”
Before she knew it, Stephanie was intoxicated beyond the threshold of memory. At midnight, she passed out mid-conversation in a lawn chair outside. A group of friends carried her up to her room and placed her in bed.
“All of the sudden something caused me to wake up, but only for a matter of seconds,” Stephanie said. “I could only lift my eyes open about halfway. I saw a figure on top of me, but no face.”
During her brief moment of consciousness, Stephanie found herself unable to move her arms or legs and could offer no resistance. Stephanie passed out again.
“When I woke up [the next morning], something felt off,” Stephanie said. “My underwear was on the floor and my skirt was lifted up to my hips and left there. I also couldn’t make sense of what I remembered happening. Was it real? Was it a dream?”
The day after the party, Ryan approached Stephanie and told her they had sex the night before. Stephanie knew something was wrong.
“I was confused because I remembered so little but I didn’t feel right about it,” Stephanie said. “I was physically incapacitated and he took advantage of that.”
Two months later, after opening up to her mom and best friends, Stephanie decided to report the assault and press charges.
“To save himself, [Ryan] tried to make it sound like I wanted it,” Stephanie said. “And I have this horrible memory of waking up with him on top of me to remind me of it.”
A broken system
“Sexual assault is the only crime where society blames the victim,” said Cary Haynes, director of center programs at the Brazos County Sexual Assault Resource Center.
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, sexual assault is the most under-prosecuted crime in the U.S. Rape cases are difficult to prosecute in part because of the burden of proof. Most sexual assaults involve two witnesses — the victim and defendant.
The first step in reporting a sexual assault is to file a crime report. At this point a survivor can choose whether to file a Jane Doe report, a decision that will strike the survivor’s real name from the official records and the resulting proceedings. Following the initial report, law enforcement officials interview the survivor. During the interview, the survivor can be accompanied by an advocate, not a friend or relative.
“The advocate at the police station was my one saving grace,” Stephanie said. “She sat next to me during the entire interview, helped me along through the tough parts to say aloud and provided reassurance through my moments of doubt.”
The purpose of the interview is to obtain basic information about the crime. The information provided by the survivor is the basis for the legal proceeding. While the questioning might seem insensitive, the law enforcement officials are trained to maintain a neutral attitude throughout the course of the interview.
“The police interview was probably the hardest part,” Stephanie said. “As I sat there and uncomfortably described everything that happened, the officers’ blank faces just stared back at me.”
Following the interview, the case is handed to an investigator who determines if there is evidence of a crime. The report is then forwarded to the district attorney if the evidence warrants a case. The district attorney ultimately determines whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the case. From this point less than one in five sexual assault cases go to trial.
“One of the reasons I didn’t want to report [my sexual assault] is because I’d heard horror stories of defense lawyers tormenting rape victims on the stand,” said Beth, Class of 2009, who decided not to report her sexual assault.
While survivors of sexual assault are protected by the rape shield law, which limits what the defense can ask about the victim’s prior sexual history, a defense attorney will attempt to discredit the personal testimony of the witness. Tactics might include suggesting that the witness misidentified the defendant, lied about the assault, or gave misleading sexual signals on the occasion of the assault.