Viewpoint: News article on sexual assault conviction rates was misleading
BY SARAH KIRKMAN
The data from a recent newspaper article regarding sexual assault cases in the state focused on six specific crimes during the period from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2018. Those specific offenses, according to the article, were First-Degree Rape, First-Degree Forcible Rape, Second-Degree Rape, Second-Degree Forcible Rape, First-Degree Forcible Sex Offense and Second-Degree Forcible Sex Offense. These are certainly not the only crimes in our state that are sexual assaults, and in the study, charges above that resulted in a plea to other crimes or attempts did not count as convictions. So the data are misleading.
In our district, it is definitely safe to say that sexual abuse of children is more common than sexual abuse of adults, and Dove House Children’s Advocacy Center has been the repository of statistics for these sexual abuse cases in our district.
During the period from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2018, records show that in our district 95 individuals were charged with one or more counts of sexual abuse of a child. Of those 95 defendants, 80 pleaded guilty or no contest pursuant to plea arrangements. Cases against six defendants were dismissed. Cases against five defendants were abated due to the deaths of the defendants. Four defendants pleaded not guilty and were tried by a jury. Juries found two of those defendants guilty, one not guilty, and one jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision.
The District Attorney’s Office, local law enforcement agencies, Guardian ad Litem, medical professionals, mental health professionals and the Department of Social Services all partner with Dove House Children’s Advocacy Center in an effort to reduce trauma to children who have been sexually abused. Dove House provides a safe, child-friendly environment in which any child who discloses sexual abuse is interviewed by a forensic interviewer.
Prior to Dove House, which was established in Iredell County in 2002, a child who disclosed sexual abuse would have to speak to a number of individuals about the abuse during an investigation.
Depending on the facts of the case, the child might have to tell the police officer who took the initial report, the detective assigned to the case, a social worker, a doctor, a counselor, the Assistant District Attorney, and any other individuals who had an interest in keeping the child safe. Dove House brings all of those individuals to the child, so that the child only has to be interviewed once.
For the cases in which criminal charges are filed, Dove House provides a victim advocate for the child and the child’s non-offending family members. That victim advocate follows the case through the court process and maintains contact with the child, often times, even after the case is heard in court.
Since partnering with Dove House in 2002, the successful prosecution rate for child sexual abuse cases has increased from less than 20 percent to 88 percent.
It is difficult to determine if the number of people charged and prosecuted in the district reflects the number of times sexual assaults are occurring. Traditionally, sexual abuse has been an underreported crime. Assistant District Attorney Crystal Beale said, “Every time I pick a jury in a case involving a sexual assault or a registered sex offender, I ask potential jurors if they have been, or if they know someone who has been the victim of a sexual assault. Nearly every time there is at least one juror who has been, or has a close family member who has been, the victim of unreported sexual abuse.”
There are a number of challenges in prosecuting sexual abuse cases that we do not face in prosecuting other felonies. Sexual assault, whether of a child or an adult, is generally a crime that is committed in private. Often, the only witnesses to the crime are the victim and the perpetrator.
Victims of sexual assault are sometimes reluctant to talk about their assaults. They may be embarrassed or ashamed. They may blame themselves. They may simply be uncomfortable talking about the subject matter.
Victims of sexual assault at the hands of a family member or friend may be especially reluctant to disclose abuse. They may be afraid that other family members will be angry with them if they tell. They may love the person who is assaulting them although they do not like what the person is doing to them.
They may feel as though they will be held responsible for sending a loved one to jail and breaking up the family.
Victims of sexual assault may feel guilty about having engaged in behavior before the assault that made them more vulnerable. Unfortunately, circumstances that make a person a good target for a sexual predator, such as intoxication, drug use, or risk-taking, also make that person a good target for cross-examination by the defense during a trial.
Sexual assaults are generally not immediately reported. They are often reported outside of the 48- to 72-hour window in which DNA evidence could be found during a sexual assault exam. Although, more often than not, sexual assault is a crime that leaves no physical evidence.
In my office, I take these cases very seriously. I have two assistant district attorneys, Crystal Beale and Scott Cranford, dedicated to specializing in these cases. In addition, my staff is an integral part of the Multi-Disciplinary Team made up of different disciplines that collaborate on the investigation and prosecution of these cases. My assistant district attorneys are in constant contact with law enforcement officers from the earliest stages of the process to ensure that we build the strongest cases possible.
My goals as District Attorney are getting justice for victims and keeping our community safe.
Sometimes that means pleading defendants to lesser offenses or dismissing some charges in exchange for guilty pleas to others. But rest assured, we do not take lightly any type of crime, including sexual assaults, and we do our best under sometimes tough circumstances to make sure that justice is served.
Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney for Iredell and Alexander counties.