Prosecutors in Florida routinely drop their examination of rape claims unless the alleged victim explicitly agrees to an investigation, according to a New York Times analysis.
The newspaper examined sexual assault claims filed by students at Florida State University – where Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston led the Seminoles to a national championship in January, after prosecutors declined to charge him in a rape case that languished for nearly 11 months.
Police conducted “virtually no investigation at all,” the Times reported last year, after a former student claimed Winston raped her Dec. 7, 2012, after drinking at a popular bar.
The woman’s attorney claims police cautioned her against filing charges in the case, telling her she would be “raked over the coals” and made miserable in the football-mad town.
She complained that police dropped the investigation after claiming she had been uncooperative.
The state attorney general reopened the case after the woman’s claims were publicized in November, but prosecutors eventually determined there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Winston.
“There are a lot of jurisdictions that are trying to do it better, but it’s still incredibly common that the police just do not do the investigation,” said Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University psychology professor who researches law enforcement handling of sexual assaults. “They do not treat other crimes this way. If you have a property crime, they don’t say: ‘Would you like me to dust for fingerprints? Would you like me to canvass the area for witnesses?’”
Even when victims do file a police report and submit to a medical rape exam, officers typical end their investigation of the claims if the accuser does not tell them to continue.
“I was raped and stressed and scared,” one student wrote in a complaint to Tallahassee police, “something completely different than not cooperating.”
Although the Times examined records primarily from Tallahassee, experts say police departments elsewhere follow the same practice.
“Agreeing to report is not the same thing as saying, ‘I’ll get up on the stand and testify,’ and that conversation shouldn’t happen until much later, if it happens at all,” said Kathleen Brown, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Police have historically not believed accusers or tried to avoid difficult-to-prove cases, Brown said, so they discouraged women from reporting rapes.
It’s difficult to determine how many Florida State students report sexual assault claims to police, because most take place off campus and are reported to Tallahassee police – who do not keep records of which accusers are students.
But nurses from Refuge House, a nonprofit group in Tallahassee, examined and counseled 63 students seeking treatment for sexual assaults between 2011 and 2013.
The group’s records show 55 of those students reported the assault to police.
“In the guise of seeking the victim’s consent to the investigation, she’s actually being bullied out of it,” said Meg Baldwin, executive director of Refuge House. “Particularly in the few days after an attack, a victim is very likely to place the interpretation on those kinds of questions as questioning the reliability of her report.”
Interviews with prosecutors and local news reports indicated just two arrests in those cases.
University police made no arrests at all for forcible sex offenses between 2007 and 2013, records show.
Although prosecutors decided not to charge Winston, they leveled strong criticism at Tallahassee police for their handling of the investigation.
“If a victim comes in and reports a violent crime, I don’t think it’s appropriate to then say, ‘Well, what do you want to do about it? Are you sure you want to go forward with this?’” said Georgia Cappleman, chief assistant state attorney. “The appropriate thing to do is to assume by her being there, making the report, that she does want an investigation and to proceed with it accordingly.”
[Image: Rape victim via Shutterstock]