Justice System Often Fails in Rape Cases


When asked about their experiences with the criminal justice system, the women paused and then broke the silence with strained laughter.

For the four sexual assault and rape survivors who offered their stories to the Gazette with the promise of anonymity, their hesitation to proceed through the courts - or their frustrating experiences once involved in the system - force these women to find meaning and resolution outside the criminal justice system.

Beth, a native Vineyarder who was attacked in the spring of 1999, now sees her attacker walking free on the same streets she walks. Once the case was settled with the assailant for lesser charges before the case went to trial, the case was continued for one year without finding. Because the man who attacked her faces no penalties if he doesn't break the law for one year, Beth says she lost confidence in the system.

" ‘Mitigating circumstances' - it's just crap," Beth says.

Caitlin was just 15 years old when she was raped by two men. The grand jury hear enough evidence in the statutory rape case to move it from district court to superior court, where the attackers could face prison sentences of more than two and half years, the maximum sentence allowed in a civil case in district court.

Even though facing her attackers and wading through the legal technicalities of the system have not been easy for this Vineyard teen, she has been present at every step in the process.

"Some days are not very good. When they were reading the charges, I thought I was going to cry because I hadn't seen one of them. Going to court sets me back a little. But I am growing stronger and stronger every day. I literally see the other guy every day," Caitlin says.

Alex, a summer worker who believes she was given a date rape drug before her supervisor raped her earlier this season, is uncertain whether her case will even enter the court system. While she's filed a complaint, the district attorney waits for results from a medical test to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed. Meanwhile, Alex returned to college, frustrated that her departure keeps her from being more involved in the process.

"I'm ready to leave this small Island, but there's a lot of stuff that I feel like I need to finish here. It could be a while though. It kind of sucks, even though I'm not going to drop it," Alex says a few days before her departure from the Vineyard.

"It's not going to disappear. I can only stay on top of it with phone calls. I can't go to the police station and have a detective tell me what's going on. It will be hard playing phone tag. That's why I didn't go home in the first place. I didn't want to leave it, but now I have no choice. I have to go back to school."

Rose, who was repeatedly raped and held against her will by three men earlier this summer, knew the strain of testifying would be too difficult for her at this point, so she decided not to file a complaint or enter the criminal justice system.

"I don't think I could personally handle it emotionally. I think it would be way too overwhelming. Right now, I feel so confident that life will go back to normal. If I was to press charges, it would be way too much for me to handle. Having to tell the story, go before a judge and possibly face the attacker again," Rose said, trailing off.

If a survivor agrees to file a complaint, the district attorney then determines if there is enough evidence to proceed through the legal system.

Among the necessary evidence for solid prosecution is the attacker's DNA, traces of the attacker's semen on the woman's body or clothes. This evidence can be obtained if a woman goes through the rape kit test at the hospital. But she must decide to do this within 72 hours after the rape.

For many women, the primary physical concern after attack is sexually transmitted diseases, a horror that Caitlin endured.

"My first call when I got back to the Island was to Family Planning. With three men, I knew my chances of having something was pretty high. My concern was making sure I didn't have any diseases. I wanted to make sure I was physically okay," Rose says.

The fear of catching a disease drove Alex to the hospital too, but she also was urged by police to go through the rape kit test to secure necessary evidence.

"I wanted to make sure I didn't get anything from him. The police told me I needed to go to the hospital and get checked. It [the rape evidence kit] was very thorough. It took a lot of time. It's painful. If that's what it's going to take to get evidence, I wanted to do it. I was willing to let them take all they needed. I was at the hospital until four in the morning," Alex says.

Even though the medical tests revealed no sexually transmitted diseases, Alex still worries.

"I still think about it everyday. If something is different in your body, you ask yourself, ‘Did I get this because of that?' " says Alex, who will not know if she contracted HIV until one year after the rape.

If DNA evidence is secured, this only proves that the attacker ejaculated. If penetration is found, the prosecution must then prove that consent was not granted, which is difficult to prove in any rape case.

Also essential to the launch of criminal proceedings is the survivor's willingness to become the primary witness in the case. If she assumes this responsibility, she could face the strain of relaying graphic, and often embarrassing, details of her assault in front of judge, jury and her attacker.

The attacker, on the other hand, is never forced to take the stand. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. The survivor becomes the prosecution's key witness.

"Everything is protected for him. Innocent until proven guilty," Beth says.

The survivor's involvement as a witness also means she must face her attacker again, an element that Caitlin admits is very difficult.

"I thought I would see them every day. I was afraid. I try and not let them see that, but I wanted to show them that they really ruined my life," Caitlin says.

Beth found the delays and long waits frustrating. In fact, she agreed to settle for lesser charges in the pretrial phase, so she could move on with her life.

"I have a job, I have a life. I need to get on," Beth says.

She also dreaded testifying in court and even refused the opportunity to say something in the sentencing hearing.

"They invited me to come and say something. I felt like I had said everything I had to say by bringing it forward. I don't want to be associated with it. That's not who I am. It happened to me; it's not me," Beth says.

Beth also knew that if the case proceeded to a full-fledged trial, her attacker could choose to testify.

"I didn't want to go through the court process. Once I agreed, he would be given the chance to tell what happened. I didn't want to hear that. It's a question of how much you can handle at the moment. Now I could do it, but I couldn't then," Beth says.

When asked if she feels justice was served, Beth is quick to offer a resounding "no." But Beth believes the lack of justice in the system is not limited just to sexual violence cases.

"It's that way for women, whether it's a sexual crime or not," Beth says. "If you are walking down the street at night and someone grabs your purse, they'll ask, ‘Well, why were you walking down the street at night?' It's like you should know better."