Sexual assault cases among most difficult for investigators
June 1, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Sexual assault crimes are complex, and understanding these complexities is the basis of the Special Victims Unit Investigations Course, which 30 CID Special Agents and Staff Judge Advocate personnel attended May 14-25 at the U.S. Army Military Police School.
Over the course of the first week, students learned how sex offenders facilitate sexual assaults using weapons such as alcohol and drugs. Attendees also learned many sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-strangers, and victims do not always suffer physical signs of the assault, but often suffer psychological trauma that can affect behaviors and memory that are counterintuitive to society's beliefs.
One of the most important thing students learned during the first week is that many times victims do not act like society thinks they should act, which results in victim blaming and lost cases, and allows sex offenders the ability to commit another sexual assault.
"We as agents need to learn how to better gather what we call psycho-physiological evidence -- different evidence than we have ever considered in law enforcement, because many times we consider forensic evidence and testimonial evidence, but what about the psycho-physiological evidence?" asked Highly Qualified Expert Special Investigator David Markel, Sexual Assault Investigations. "It's there, and we need to start using it."
During the second week of the course, students were educated on the complex problem of unfounded cases and false reports, marital sexual assault and victim interviews.
Dr. Kimberly Lonsway, EVAW International director of research, told the class that false reports were one of her favorite topics of discussion because over the course of her 20-year career in dealing with sexual assault-related issues, many things have changed.
Historically, people have tended to think a majority of sexual assault cases are false reports. However, several recent population studies that were combined into the EVAW International "MAD" Study have shown that only 2-8 percent of sexual assaults reported are false.
Lonsway went over the potential indicators of false reports as well as helping agents identify those indicators. However, Lonsway stressed to students that investigating sexual assault cases to the fullest extent was important in determining the facts -- insufficient evidence does not mean the crime did not occur or that it is a false report.
Patti Powers, Highly Qualified Expert for CID and a senior deputy prosecuting attorney, discussed courtroom scenarios, defense strategies, the matter of public opinion in the courtroom and how society questions the credibility of victims.
"Our society, our world is somewhat desensitized -- we have seen everything, we have heard everything -- there isn't that shock value anymore," Powers said. "Our challenge is to recreate the reality of the crime that most people don't even want to believe exists. We are going to trial in the courtroom of public opinion."
Powers said many times a jury will ask questions, especially in non-stranger sexual assault cases, such as "why didn't she see it coming?"
"This is how we bring the reality of the rape to the jury -- he knew her and she thought she knew him, but she didn't because he was the stranger. Whether he is a supervisor, whether he is a superior, whether he is a friend, whether he is religious person, whether he is a boyfriend, whether he is a spouse," Powers said. "Things are going along OK, the victim is living her life, but there is a predator approaching in that relationship and she does not know it. He has obtained information about her, operational by gut-instinct, but she doesn't know it."
Markel added to Powers' discussion of non-stranger sexual assaults. He told students that although sexual assault cases are the hardest cases they would ever investigate, the complexity of a sexual assault cases rises when it involves two people who are married.
Until September 1994, marital rape was not considered a crime in all 50 states and the latest research on marital rape shows that 25 percent of reported rapes were of married women by their partners.
Marital rape is also one of the most underreported crimes in non-stranger sexual assault, Powers added.
"This is a crime, for the most part, that is hidden because it is in a closed relationship. This is a relationship that is very susceptible to control, it is a relationship that is very susceptible to violence," Powers said. "Very frequently when this crime is reported, it is reported as domestic violence, but there may also be sexual assault."
Prior to completing the course, CID Special Agents and JAG personnel spent time reviewing closed sexual assault cases as practical exercises. Students also conducted mock victim interviews with a partner that involved marital rape and non-stranger rape scenarios using the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview technique.
Maj. Lewis "Von" Kliem, Fort Polk chief of military justice and guest instructor, said using the FETI technique works; it works for both CID Special Agents and JAG personnel.
"What is the message of FETI? It's not just a tool that allows you to receive a three-dimensional version of the experience … it also allows us to send that strategic message: we have all the time in the world to talk, it's OK if you don't remember everything, your experience is important to us, your story is important to us."
The victim interview is the most essential piece of evidence obtained while investigating a sexual assault case because it is the nexus of everything else that happens, Markel told students.
"We can't treat the victim as a witness to their own crime because the way they remember things isn't as a witness tells it," Markel said. "This is something that happened to them. This is their experience."