Burden rests heavily on victims of sexual assault

By Jaclyn Archer and Jane Martin


Despite EWU’s ranking as one of the safest university campuses in Washington as of December 2012, statistics show that sexual assault continues to be a serious concern for students.

EWU’s annual security and fire reports indicate that between 2010 and 2012, there were 22 sexual assaults reported on campus.

Campus police are still in the process of gathering and cross-checking data for the 2013 reports, and final numbers will not be released until October.

Perhaps more surprising than the sheer number of reports, however, is the amount of time and effort required from all sides to see a case through to conviction. For the victim, the roller coaster begins with the initial assault.

Investigator Quincy Burns of the EWU Police said, “First thing that you should do once you’ve been assaulted is get away somewhere safe, or if you’re in your own room or residence or whatever, try to secure that, and you call 911. Very first thing. So that we can get there and keep you safe.”

If the person who has assaulted a student is a spouse or live-in boyfriend, Burns advises that the student removes him/herself from the situation as soon as possible.

“You should try to remove yourself from that residence and call 911. Go to another neighbor, go someplace where you can be somewhat safe, but remove yourself from that environment,” Burns said.

For those who cannot leave the residence without alerting their assailant, Burns says to wait them out. “That partner, that person’s generally gonna go to work, gonna do something, and it’s gonna afford you the opportunity — and at that earliest opportunity you should remove yourself from that environment and seek help.”

Calling 911 brings the personnel necessary to secure the location and the surrounding area so that they can bring the suspect into custod, and also see to a victim’s medical needs. The victim will then be highly encouraged to go to the hospital and receive a sexual assault exam.

Sexual assault exams are useful because they can be used in identifying any physical trauma resulting from the rape requiring treatment — such as bruising or tearing of the vaginal walls or anus. The information gathered from a sexual assault kit, such as hair, semen and skin cells, also feed into the second priority of law enforcement: evidence.

Burns warns victims to ignore their instincts to take a shower first. “Do not shower,” Burns said. “Do not take and burn or throw away your clothes, or wash your clothes that you were wearing during that time, because that all is very valuable evidence,” said Burns.

Statements are taken from the victim, and any possible witnesses, to gather the basic information necessary for the investigation. If the victim chooses to undergo a sexual assault examination, an officer will accompany him or her to the hospital. The immediate location and community are secured, and a description of a suspect may be released to other law-enforcement in the area so that he or she can be brought in for questioning. From here things get more case specific.

The law is very clear about how sexual assault is defined.

According to the Revised Code of Washington Chapter 9A.44, there are nine different types of sexual assault, including rape, which is prosecuted in three degrees, indecent liberties and voyeurism. Each of these crimes has a specific legal definition which must be fulfilled for an individual to be charged and convicted of the crime.

“Most things we see here, it usually has something to do with alcohol,” Burns said. While some may surmise that alcohol creates a gray area when identifying sex crimes, Burns said the legal reality is anything but grey.

“The laws are very clear about that. It is rape if you do engage in sexual activity with a person who is under the influence. … If [the other person doesn’t] have the capacity to make a reasonable consent decision, then it’s rape.”

According to Burns, any chemical impairment, including the use of alcohol or marijuana, inhibits a person from legally giving consent, even if the parties involved have a prior sexual relationship.

This does not mean that rape cases involving alcohol and a romantic couple will be easy to prosecute. According to prosecutor for Spokane County and supervisor of the Sexual Assault Unit, Kelly Fitzgerald, cases involving couples can be difficult to prosecute, even with DNA evidence.
Fitzgerald said, “If you have two individuals that know each other, even if there is DNA evidence, often times the issue is whether or not there was consensual contact.”

In other words, DNA evidence only proves two people had sex, it does not conclusively prove rape. Fitzgerald said that contrary to the expectations of most juries, many rape cases do not have any physical evidence. This is often due to delays in reporting and may contribute to the circumstances that lead to plea bargain resolutions instead of convictions.

When a case goes to trial, the legal burden rests upon the prosecutor to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Fitzgerald explained that when there is no physical evidence to bring to court, the prosecutors must decide whether they can make the case, and if not, they may resort to a plea bargain to resolve the case. In other words, delays in reporting can lead to a dearth of evidence, which makes it more difficult to get a rape conviction.

Throughout this whole process, Fitzgerald said the victim is kept informed. No plea bargain is made without the knowledge of the victim, and the Spokane County prosecutor’s office works closely with several victim advocacy groups whose job it is to walk the victim through the various twists and turns their case may take.

According to EWU Police Deputy Chief Gary Gasseling, even when a victim follows the recommended course of action in reporting an assault, the case may never come to court unless he or she chooses to pursue charges aggressively. Many times, students really just want to move on with their lives.

In an ideal situation, Gasseling said, police will spend anywhere from four to six weeks investigating an alleged assault. After that, it may take the prosecutor another month to evaluate the case and an additional six months to a year to file charges.

Cmdr. Rick Campbell of the Cheney Police said he recalled his department handling two forcible rape cases in 2013 but did not know if charges had yet been filed for either one.

Campbell said that it is common for defendants to choose to plead out rather than go through a lengthy trial process. “By design,” Campbell said, “[the system] isn’t efficient. It is designed to slow things down.”

He explained that according to the statute of limitations, prosecutors have three years after an assault has occurred to file charges in a situation involving two adults, and it is common for a prosecutor to postpone filing charges in order to build a stronger case. During this time, the prosecutor may request further investigation from law enforcement to anticipate any weaknesses in the case which the defense may exploit to cast doubt on a guilty verdict. As soon as charges are filed, he explained, things must move quickly because of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

The process that brings an assault case from the initial attack to case resolution is heavily influenced by time: How much time passed before the rape was reported? How much time is spent investigating the case? How much time does the victim invest in the case — getting a sexual assault examination, working with an advocate and testifying?

According to Burns, the best thing that a victim can do to ensure that the assailant is brought to justice is report the assault as quickly as possible, preserve as much evidence from the attack as possible by refraining from showering or altering the scene until law enforcement and medical personnel arrive, and cooperate with the investigation as long as possible.

He further advises students to avoid engaging in sexual activity with anyone while they are intoxicated or otherwise unable to give reasonable consent. Even if a person never explicitly says no — because they are frozen with fear, shocked or otherwise feel they will only bring more harm to themselves or their property by resisting — they can still report having been raped.

Burns said, “Just because a person is standing in front of you naked doesn’t give you the right to do something that she doesn’t want to do. That’s the bottom line. I mean that’s about as blunt as you can get.”



If the assailant in a sexual assault is a romantic partner, it becomes a domestic violence case, and Washington state law dictates that the police must make an arrest within four hours.

The best thing you can do is to report the incident as soon as possible. Even if you do not decide to testify against your assailant, making the police aware of the assault provides a data point which may be useful in establishing probable cause for law enforcement if the individual is accused of attacking someone else.

If a rape is reported days or weeks after the event, the police cannot go out and immediately arrest the person accused. Instead, they must spend time interviewing the victim, possible witnesses, the accused and other people close to the situation to establish probable cause for an arrest. Then all the information gathered over the course of the investigation is forwarded to the prosecutor’s office, and they decide if charges will be filed.