She Says: Return To The Scene Of The Crime

Jun 7, 2018

In episode 2, we go back to the crime scene, which in this case is the body.

Host Sarah Delia talks to Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, who carefully examine victims and their belongings for biological evidence that might help identify perpetrators. We examine CMPD’s policing philosophy as it pertains to victims.

We also hear from Linda, whose sexual assault case we’ve been investigating for the last year, about how she felt during her interactions with medical and police officials after her assault.

Find more information on She Says, including a timeline of events, the series trailer and resources for survivors of sexual assault, at wfae.org/shesays.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT

EPISODE 2: RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

Editor’s note: This podcast includes adult language and themes. It also contains descriptions about sexual violence. 

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SARAH DELIA: When you think about a crime scene, a certain image probably comes to mind. Yellow police tape. Flashing red and blue lights. Towering police officers with crossed arms standing guard. Your imagination is running wild as you can only guess what the scene looks like behind them.

The crime scene is where key evidence is collected, carefully, and then sent off to a crime lab to be analyzed. But in the case of a sexual assault, the scene of the crime isn’t so much a where but more so a who. It’s the body.

After Linda’s assault, she knew one thing: to better the odds of identifying her attacker, she would have to have a sexual assault exam done, and as soon as possible, while she was at the hospital. That meant hours after being violently sexually assaulted, her body would be examined sort of like how a crime scene would. Photos snapped. Swabs taken. Evidence collected. Step by step.

LINDA: I don’t remember them asking, but my answer would have been yes, or even if they hadn’t asked, I would have said do it now. Now.

DELIA: In other words, she knew the examination was part of the process. And she knew time was important.

Because as the seconds ticked by, important evidence could be lost.

LINDA: There would have been semen that had, was in my mouth. I got so worried because he had a soda can in the car, and I remember taking a sip of that and later on thinking: ‘Oh what did I do? Did I screw up by doing that?’

DELIA: From the very start of Linda’s assault, she was looking out for key pieces of evidence. From the shirt she presumes that had the suspect’s last name on it and the company he worked for, to providing Mr. X’s name to detectives through an internet search, to being very cognizant of the physical evidence on her.

And it’s no easy task.

LINDA: And it’s just been an absolute nightmare. An absolute nightmare. So I, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t at this point.

DELIA: And while we still are searching for answers, I can tell you one thing. Our next step on this winding road is the most logical one we could possibly take — it’s to return to the scene of the crime. From WFAE in Charlotte, I’m Sarah Delia. This is She Says.

DELIA: After Mr. X dropped Linda off at a familiar intersection, she says she called the police. An ambulance took her to a local hospital. Her family was notified and met her there. Eventually, she’s seen by a SANE nurse — that stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. Think of them like detectives — they meticulously collect samples from key areas of the body. They may not be able to see it at the time, but they could be capturing the very piece of evidence that ties the assailant to the crime.

The role of these SANE nurses cannot be understated. They are interacting with the victim on possibly the worst day of their lives. They have to work compassionately and quickly to collect evidence — and there are many steps they must follow.

LUCY MONTMINY: So obviously this comes from the crime lab. This is from Mecklenburg County. So this would be sealed. This has been open for training purposes.

DELIA: That’s Lucy Montminy, a SANE nurse with Novant Health. She didn’t examine Linda, because Linda went to a different hospital, but nurses across the area follow similar procedures. She’s showing me a sexual assault kit; it’s made of cardboard and not much bigger than a shoebox. Open it and there is a sea of white envelopes, each with detailed instructions.

A sexual assault evidence collection kit.
Credit Sarah Delia / WFAE

MONTMINY: On the bottom in this envelope, it has all the step-by-step instructions for what’s in this kit, when you would collect a certain envelope. It gives you a picture of all the swabs and the swab covers and then it tells you step by step. Step 1 is to get your consents. Step 2 is to collect.

DELIA: Each envelope includes comprehensive information on which part of the body the SANE nurse should examine and how to collect a sample and in what order.

MONTMINY: Quite often, we have patients that come in that don't remember what happened. They, there is a time lapse that they don’t recall, and there are circumstances that make them suspicious. So in those cases, we tend to collect all the swabs because we don’t know.

DELIA: To be clear, she’s not saying if the victim’s story is suspicious, but if a victim can’t remember everything that happened during the assault, it’s just safer to collect every sample possible at the risk of missing an important piece of evidence.

SANE nurses are from all different specialties — trauma, the ER department. These are nurses who go through an additional program recognized by the State Board of Nursing, so they are properly trained as to how to complete a sexual assault kit. In total, it’s over 100 hours of classroom and clinical training.

Lucy’s colleague and fellow “SANE,” as they refer to each other, Kelly Jarrell says this is a different type of nursing.

KELLY JARRELL: The way you are able to help your patients and these survivors, it’s something I can't explain. Like, to be able to come in and help them in such a time. It definitely takes a special person to be able to do this type of work.

DELIA: Special because, as Lucy points out, it’s a process that can’t be rushed. It’s like conducting a thorough investigation. Efficiency is key, but so is empathy.

MONTMINY: Of course, we’re always nurses first. Always have to think about medical issues first. But it is one of the rare times in nursing when you are really one on one with that patient and try to do our emotional support and also do a good exam.

DELIA: Lucy says it takes about four hours to complete the exam and it’s invasive — emotionally and physically. Sometimes the individual needs to take a break, and the exam is put on pause until they are ready to proceed.

Linda’s hospital experience was as most are — stressful. She says she felt like the ER doctor was abrupt and wasn’t listening to her.

But the SANE nurse who saw her showed her a level of compassion and respect that has stayed with her nearly three years since her assault.

LINDA: She was very, very, very kind. Amazing and gentle and took her time and made sure that I was OK with everything. It took a long time, lots of swabs, photos.

DELIA: This was the one time throughout this whole process that Linda felt like she was in some kind of control. After her sexual assault kit leaves the hospital that all goes away, and well, to this day, she’s still trying to get some control over her situation. The fate of her case was inside that small box. And she would spend a lot of time worrying about where it was and if it had been processed.

She says the one thing the SANE nurse didn’t do that Linda wishes she had was collect all of her clothes.

LINDA: I left in the clothes that I had on from that night. And I didn't think till later about, "They didn't take my clothes." They did take my underwear, but they did not take the clothes that I was wearing that night.

DELIA: She knew she would never wear those clothes again. Eventually, she says, she threw them out.

When asked about the collection of additional clothing besides underwear, Lucy says there is a bag in the sexual assault kit that is specifically for additional clothing.

MONTMINY: Our process is to ask them if we can submit the clothing. I mean, I’ve had instances where people tell me, "This is the only pair of pants I have." And I’ll say, “Can we take your underwear?” We have clothing (It’s new. It’s not donated.) so that we can give them panties, shirts, that sort of thing.

DELIA: Kelly jumps in here.

JARRELL: We highly encourage them to let us collect that clothing to send. And of course, a big question that they will ask is, "Will I get my clothing back?" and that’s something that we don’t know if they will or will not. We try to make everything about our process patient-oriented and letting them have a big part of the say of what they want done and what they don’t want done. I mean, they’ve already been through such a traumatic experience. We don’t want to traumatize them anymore.

DELIA: There is the possibility that Linda was asked, and she simply doesn’t remember. Maybe she was asked, and she didn’t understand at the time because she was in shock, and the nurse didn’t want to push her. Linda says she wanted to help the nurse collect as much evidence as she possibly could, so she says she would be surprised if she told the nurse she couldn’t take any more clothing.

In general, when the sexual assault kit is completed, which includes fingernail swabs, a known cheek scraping -- that’s the victim’s DNA -- the collection of clothing, sanitary items, a pubic hair combing, external genitalia swabbing, an anal sample, and in the case of children, the collection of a diaper, it’s time to seal the kit. There’s a space on the top of the box that reads: “Chain of Custody.” The SANE nurse would print their name, sign and date.

JARRELL: You know that this seal has not been broken. I was the last person to seal this. So that provides that chain of custody. So that they know that it has not been broken.

DELIA: An evidence sticker is peeled and placed across the opening of the box. When it’s been established that the patient has a safe place to go, whether that’s home or a shelter, he or she is discharged.

The next person in line in that chain of custody is typically a police officer. The officer picks up the kit and brings it to CMPD, where it is stored in property and evidence division until tested. But that wait time depends on a lot of things — mainly the priority of the case. When the kit is ready to be tested, it’s brought to the crime lab which is where we’ll head next week.

In Linda’s case, the detective will come to rely on this forensic evidence. Maybe it will connect the dots between the DNA evidence found in Linda’s kit to Mr. X’s profile in the DNA database of convicted felons — but that’s only if he’s in there. And of course, if his DNA is actually a match.

But I’m not quite done here. I still have some questions about the importance of DNA in sexual assault cases, especially in ones like Linda’s that involve a stranger.

Harold Medlock, the former chief of police in Fayetteville and CMPD homicide detective.
Credit Logan Cyrus

HAROLD MEDLOCK: Not just DNA, but all the physical evidence that you can collect is critical in those stranger cases.

DELIA: That’s Harold Medlock, he’s a retired chief of police from Fayetteville, N.C. And before that, he had a more than two-decade career in various roles with CMPD.

MEDLOCK: Video and from surrounding businesses and tire tracks where we might think the suspect parked. All of those things are important. But you're right, DNA is the slam dunk, and it's going to help us solve that case and perhaps others. If we get the hit.

DELIA: That “hit” comes in reference to a matching DNA profile in the CODIS databases. DNA profiles from sexual assault kits are uploaded to these databases, which contains the DNA profiles of convicted felons, people convicted of certain misdemeanors, and some arrested for violent crimes. It’s constantly running, and it can be really helpful in the process of finding a suspect. But it’s only helpful he points out, when that attacker’s DNA profile is in CODIS.

MEDLOCK: And the scary part is that you could have someone who has never been in the system, who has never had a swab taken on an arrest or has never been arrested. That could be the worst serial rapist this country's ever known. And once we finally get that DNA, you may clear dozens of cases, but it doesn't protect potential victims out there, and it certainly doesn't make that that victim from three years ago feel any better.

DELIA: What makes a victim feel better? A solid investigation obviously. Justice for the crime committed against them. But also compassion. We’ll hear more about CMPD’s policing philosophy. Is it victim-centric?

That when we come back.

I’m Sarah Delia, this is She Says.

>>MIDBREAK<<

ROB TUFANO: Alright, everyone. Balanced up and sound checked? You know, I’ve been talking with a number of you from the last couple weeks.

DELIA: Back in December of 2017, I did a very routine thing for a reporter to do, I went to a press conference. It was at CMPD headquarters. It’s a year and half after Linda’s assault. You just heard from Rob Tufano, he’s the Public Affairs Director for CMPD.

TUFANO: Better than 90 percent of the sex assaults that Lt. Melanie Peacock and her detectives investigate, unfortunately, involve people who know each other.

DELIA: The purpose of this press conference was to provide some information on a string of sexual assaults and sexual assault attempts that took place in 2016 and 2017 that the police were struggling to solve.

These particular assaults were occurring in the victims’ homes. And they were stranger cases.

TUFANO: Lt. Peacock is going to talk about some preventative measures that some of our victims didn’t take, could have taken, and our community members probably should take. Just best practices.

DELIA: There are things people could do, and probably should do, as police would go on to explain. Lock your doors or keep your hedges trimmed. But it was never couched with no one deserves to be sexually assaulted. Even if you leave your door wide open or, say, get in a car with someone you don’t know.

And it made me wonder when it comes to investigating sexual assault cases, does CMPD have a victim-centric policing philosophy. And what about the 10 percent of victims who don’t know their assailants?

Because people are watching and listening to the language police use. Like Linda. Linda remembers hearing coverage of this press conference. Here’s what Lt. Peacock the head of the sexual assault unit said that day.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters.
Credit Logan Cyrus

MELANIE PEACOCK: You know, obviously, general safety measures should apply. We would always caution every citizen to lock your doors, lock your windows, keep a light on, trim the hedges around your doors and windows. Just general safety tips that could potentially prevent such a thing from happening.

LINDA: I know there was a press conference.

DELIA: Yeah. I think it was the one I went to a couple of weeks ago. Yeah.

LINDA: Well I don't know how you stood there and didn't fall through the floor because I'd never heard so much victim blaming in my entire life come out of a press conference you know about people should do this or that to prevent getting sexually assaulted. I mean I really was very disappointed in how that was handled. I was livid. You would think that the lieutenant would be trained and know that’s not, that’s not how you handle these things. So there again, my faith in the department and handling and their education of sexual assaults and how to handle the cases and all the inconsistencies that I’ve dealt with, you know my faith is starting to dwindle there.

DELIA: Talking about preventative measures is a common thing for police to do. And that in of itself is not wrong or bad. We could all probably stand to hear “lock your doors” more.

But you’re hearing it first-hand from Linda, a victim of sexual assault. She says to her, the message is one of victim blaming.

I recently had a chance to talk to Rob Tufano about that press conference. I wanted to have a better understanding about how CMPD talks about preventative measures when it comes to sexual assault. And I wanted to know if he could say it again differently, would he? To refresh your memory, this is how he started that press conference in December:

TUFANO: Lt. Peacock is going to talk about some preventative measures that some of our victims didn’t take, could have taken, and our community members probably should take. Just best practices.

DELIA: This is what he said when we sat down in person in a recent interview.

TUFANO: You know what, I wouldn’t change one single syllable. Not one. In fact I would go as far as to say everyone right now within the sound of my voice, needs to go to bed tonight with their doors locked, with their windows locked, before they go to sleep. You know, I’d love to live in a world where a single woman, a woman living by herself, can go to sleep at night without having to lock her doors or windows and not have to fear that some attacker is going to barge his way in in the middle of the night and victimize her. That’s not the world I live in. I wish I lived in that world. That’s not the world I live in. That’s not the world we live in. It’s not a reality. You know, and that’s unfortunate, and it makes me sad. It really does. It makes me sad for those victims who did nothing wrong. It makes me sad as a father of four daughters who can’t grow up in a world where they feel safe. It makes me sad as a person who’s seen tragedy like this for decades through the eyes of victims. You know, I think a lot of people forget that we have a responsibility in law enforcement that really goes beyond solving the next crime. We have a bigger responsibility to try to prevent the next crime. And if that means that sometimes we have to scream it from the mountaintops ways that people can protect themselves, preventative measures that they can employ to keep themselves safe. We can’t be there everywhere at once. We have a responsibility to get out in front of the community and let them know what exactly it is they could do to keep themselves safe.

DELIA: And I get that, and I appreciate that, but shouldn’t that be couched by “no one deserves to be sexually assaulted?”

TUFANO: Absolutely.

DELIA: Even if you leave your door wide open.

TUFANO: You know what, I’d love to be able to tell everyone tonight that they can go to bed and not lock their doors and windows. That would be a great world. That’s the way we should live. But it’s not reality. You do this for a living, you cover some of this tragedy. I do this for a living. I see a lot of this tragedy — have seen if for decades. We have a responsibility to our community to let …

DELIA: I get that. We live in a world where horrible things happen to good people or even just subpar people all the time — and they don’t deserve that. But, police think that they’re speaking to victims in a way that’s helping them and if those victims disagree ... isn’t something being lost in translation?

One more thing about this press conference.

At some point, there’s going to be some movement in Linda’s case. And I can’t tell you much more than that right now. What I will say is that in December of 2017, not two weeks after this press conference I went to, Linda is waiting on the detective to do something that could really move her case forward. Again, this is a year and a half since her assault. She says she’s been waiting and waiting for the detective to collect an important piece of potential evidence. And when Linda finally asks the detective when she’ll be able to go and collect this potentially really important piece of evidence for her case, she says the detective’s response is she isn’t sure. Another case has come up.

LINDA: That they're busy and that she had no idea when she we would be getting to my case. I had been told in the past that mine was a priority and pushed up. Now I understand that things change, and there can become higher priority cases. So, who weighs that out and how so? I’m not sure.

DELIA: All paths on this winding road are connected. Even when they are roadblocks.

The head of the sexual assault unit, Lt. Melanie Peacock, told me her detectives treat all victims equally and are sensitive to the trauma caused by sexual assault.

CMPD Lt. Melanie Peacock.
Credit Alex Olgin / WFAE

PEACOCK: One of the things that's important to mention is that we're very victim-centered in how we approach our investigation. What that means is we try to give the victim a very — you know, powerful role in what they want to see happen with their case. For some victims, prosecution is just not something they're interested in. And we do our best to honor that decision. If they're really not interested in that, and you know we're certainly concerned about them getting the resources they need to help heal, that's certainly our paramount goal. I mean, we might be police officers but we're also people, and we don't ever want to compel a victim to go forward with something that they're not comfortable with.

DELIA: Linda has always known she’s wanted to pursue charges and help police find her assailant. And when she’s struggled, her detective has referred her to services in the area for sexual assault victims. But it’s one thing to give the power to victims, it’s another to build a solid trusting relationship with them. That’s what former Fayetteville chief of police and retired CMPD Police Officer Harold Medlock sees as the key.

MEDLOCK: I don’t know if it’s, we’re, if I’m victim-centric. I think I'm relationship-centric. It's about building those relationships with the crime victims but also with the people out there committing the crimes.

DELIA: He said by the end of his career, he was definitely more victim-centric, but that it wasn’t always like that. It was a shift in thinking he had to make over time. Part of that change in philosophy came into play when he was a CMPD homicide commander.

MEDLOCK: I have to give credit to my friend Rodney Monroe.

DELIA: That’s Rodney Monroe, as in Charlotte’s former police chief.

MEDLOCK: I was the homicide commander here in Charlotte when he was hired here. We were very suspect- or perpetrator-focused. I had an opportunity to learn as his homicide commander that we really needed to consider ourselves as the victim advocate in working homicides, and course I had the rape and robbery units under me at that time, too.

So we really started to change our thought process to telling the victims and their families, "We work for you in this case." And, you know, that's a hard pill to swallow when you're looking at a victim, and in most cases a homicide victim's family, and you know that that individual is someone who was involved in criminal activity for the majority of their life. And you tell their mother or their father or both, "We’re working for you in this case." And you know it's hard for them to believe, too, because we've always probably had that divide with their child perhaps being involved in criminal activity. But when we started to take that approach and really open those lines of communication, some people believed us right away. Others -- it took a while for them to figure out that we really did work for them. It started to help us solve cases quicker, and in the future, it helped us prevent retaliation shootings or murders or assaults. And it helped us solve crimes down the road because we had that relationship with the families.

DELIA: Maybe being relationship-centric is part of being victim-centric. That’s what it sounds like to me.

Linda says she doesn’t feel heard throughout the course of her case. She’s desperate for her case to be heard by someone. So much so, she contacts her local public radio station and a reporter who recently fell into a crime beat role takes her call. That’s me by the way. Eventually, I go out to meet her in person.

That first meeting was in June of 2017, almost two years since her assault.

She’s telling me her story. I’m listening. I spend the day going over what it would mean to do this story.

As the thought of 5 o’clock traffic loomed ahead, I started to get my things together. But she wanted me to stay just a while longer. She wanted to reach the detective while I was still there and see if there was an update. The detective did answer. Linda puts the call on speakerphone. They have a pleasant enough conversation about her case for about 20 minutes. Basically, there is no update.

OK, I think. Time to go.

But then, the detective calls her back a few minutes later. Linda puts the call on speakerphone again. The detective is asking her to come into the station that week to go over the case, face to face.

LINDA (on the phone): Let’s do Friday at 1. I’m anxious to, you know, I’ve … I’ve been waiting and waiting. I’m so [anxious], you know.

DELIA: Linda doesn’t know how to feel. Is this a good thing? Bad thing? All she knows, she says, is that she can’t wait to go down to the CMPD headquarters for what she believes is an update.

But what happens next is a sharp turn no one sees coming.

I’m Sarah Delia.

CREDITS:

She Says is written, produced and reported by Sarah Delia. Our editor is Greg Collard. Joni Deutsch is our producer. Alex Olgin is our reporter. Music is provided by Pachyderm Music Lab. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using the hashtag #WFAESheSays. You can tweet at Sarah Delia directly @SarahWFAE. If you want next week’s episode in your feed as soon as it comes out, make sure to subscribe to She Says on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you find podcasts. You can find more information about the podcast at WFAE.org/shesays.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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