Anatomy Of A Rape Investigation
Thu February 23, 2012
Anatomy Of A Rape Investigation
Last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested a 31-year-old man named Lavatae Evans for his fourth alleged rape in three months. Prosecutors dropped charges in the first three incidents because the women changed their stories and didn't allow police to collect evidence with an exam known as a "rape kit."
Lavatae Evans is now in Mecklenburg County jail while prosecutors decide if they can pursue charges in the latest allegation that he smoked marijuana with a 19-year-old woman he knew and then pulled a gun and raped her.
To see a man accused of four rapes in such a short amount of time can be troubling to the public, particularly when television shows like Law and Order SVU are the only exposure most people have to rape cases.
CMPD's sexual assault unit says real life rape investigations are generally not like those shows. But Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Samantha Pendergrass says television crime dramas have a real impact on her work.
"Jurors come in with a lot of rape myths in their head and when I'm screening cases I have to acknowledge that although we might not like it, that does exist," says Pendergrass, who handles all adult rape prosecutions for Mecklenburg County.
Once a guy is arrested - and yes it's usually men - it's Pendergrass' call whether or not to pursue the charges. So the main thing she's looking for is whether there's enough evidence to get past the rape myths in a juror's mind and back up the victim's story.
"That's why corroboration is so important," says Pendergrass. "There's almost this expectation that any rape victim is gonna run screaming, naked and bleeding to the first officer she sees. And that rarely happens, so we need to be able to show the jury good reasons it didn't."
Pendergrass says jurors are often skeptical of a woman who waits a while to report a rape. She says they also tend to think all rape victims should act really emotional on the witness stand, like they do on TV. If she's not acting that way - or if her voice sounds calm on the 911 call - Pendergrass says it bothers jurors.
And she also says that, in her experience, female jurors on rape cases tend to be a lot tougher to convince, for whatever reason.
On television, the main evidence to back up a victim's story is DNA.
"Her body is the crime scene"
CMPD Sexual Assault Unit Detective Carol Owens says that can also be true in real life. But it's tricky with a rape victim because "the crime scene is their body, so their body gets processed for evidence."
There's an extensive sexual assault exam often called a "rape kit."
Ideally police say a victim would have the exam within 72 hours. Every inch of her body is inspected by a specially-trained nurse. The nurse photographs and swabs for DNA and looks for injuries - and also interviews the victim.
Assistant DA Pendergrass says that interview with the nurse can be even more important than the physical evidence from the exam.
Eighty percent of rape reports to CMPD last year involved a victim and suspect who knew each other. In those cases, prosecutors must prove the sex was not consensual.
And Pendergrass says most of the time, the rape kit doesn't find injuries that would prove the man forced himself on his victim. It may still have been rape, but suddenly the DNA evidence and photos from the exam aren't all that helpful in convincing a jury.
Pendergrass says just the fact that the victim reported the incident within 72 hours, agreed to the exam and then told the same story to the nurse, to the detective on the case and eventually in court, is very important in convincing a jury.
There are times, however, when a woman refuses to get the rape exam: she wants a doctor to check her out and then she wants to get on with her life.
Don't lie about dumb choices
Sergeant Melanie Peacock, who leads the CMPD sexual assault team, says often the victim was doing something at the time of the rape that she worries will make her look bad. That plays into a victim's willingness to report a rape quickly - and completely.
"The key is just trying to get that person to trust us enough to understand that 'Okay, you might have been drinking, you might have been indulging in drugs, you might have been somewhere you shouldn't have been - we don't care about that,'" says Peacock. "Our focus is to prosecute the person that's responsible for this."
Sometimes a victim will decide she doesn't want to pursue prosecution. Maybe it's too traumatic, or she doesn't want to cooperate anymore. Last year, CMPD had 212 reports of rape and attempted rape. About 18 percent of those cases were dropped at the victim's request.
Only when the police arrest someone does the DA get involved.
At that point, Pendergrass says it usually takes a few more weeks for the police to finish interviewing witnesses and rounding up evidence. The rape kit can take three or four months to be analyzed by CMPD's lab.
Then, Pendergrass has to decide if it's a case she can take to a jury. The biggest problem she sees with rape cases is victims changing their stories.
"The most important thing that victims can do is just tell the truth no matter what they think it makes them look like," says Pendergrass. "Whatever it is, just say it. Jurors respect when people come clean. Dumb choices we can work with, but lies are very hard."
Forced to drop charges
Too many inconsistencies in a victim's story and Pendergrass may have to drop charges - even if she thinks the guy did it.
She says that's the worst part of her job.
"I guess the way I've made peace with that over the years is the ones we rejected for prosecution are the ones we would not have won," says Pendergrass. "We would have put a victim through a trial and then gotten a 'not guilty' (verdict) and emboldened the defendant."
But if the guy rapes again, Pendergrass can go back to the old reports and use them as evidence against him.
Perhaps the biggest difference between television and reality is the time it takes for a rape case to go to trial in Mecklenburg County.
Right now, Pendergrass is trying rapes that were initially reported about two years ago. She says there's a backlog of cases and not enough judges and courtrooms available.
Between July 2010 and June 2011, Mecklenburg County had 53 rape cases pending.
A little over half of those were dismissed for some of the reasons previously mentioned. But there were 14 men who pled guilty and two found guilty at trial.
On the police side, nearly half of rapes reported to CMPD last year are still open investigations where no arrest has been made.
The bottom line: Convicting a rapist requires a really strong victim who tells the whole truth from the start, and enough evidence to take the case beyond "He said, she said."