Sexual assault remains one of the most often unreported crimes of violence in Gila County, say police and prosecutors.
While victims rarely report such attacks, when they are reported, these cases most often end in plea agreements or are all together thrown out, according to a Roundup investigation.
Last year, the Gila County attorney’s office prosecuted 42 percent of the 24 sex-related crimes local police referred to the prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors dismissed the rest due to a lack of sufficient evidence, making sexual assaults one of the least prosecuted crimes.
While Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores says such programs have worked well in Tucson and elsewhere, she says it would take all the members of the criminal justice system agreeing on such a program to implement one in Gila County. And at this time, there are no plans for such a program.
In Gila County last year, a teenaged girl was the assault victim most of the time and the suspect was an adult male.
Of the 24 sex-related crimes police
submitted to the Gila County attorney’s office for review in 2010, 21 involved juvenile victims. None involved juvenile perpetrators.
In 2009, only two cases had juvenile defendants.
While the majority of reported cases go unprosecuted, many are never reported to police at all.
Flores and Payson Police Chief Don Engler both agree the numbers understate the gravity of sex-related crimes.
“We do not believe these numbers reflect the true number of these types of offenses that occur in our county,” Flores said.
Fear, doubt, embarrassment and confusion over what actually constitutes a crime, stops victims from making a report.
According to national statistics, victims report just 16 percent of rapes to police, often “because women perceive that the processes offered by the criminal justice system will do nothing for them,” according to a study by University of Arizona researchers published in the journal, Violence Against Women.
It is crucial those who have contact with victims, such as family and friends, support victims in reporting the crime, Flores said.
“They must encourage the victim to report, and if the victim is a child, they must take it upon themselves to report,” she said. “I believe any individual who learns a child is being abused has a personal duty to report it, a child deserves protection from the adults in its life.”
Even when women report these crimes, the county attorney’s office throws out more than half of the cases referred to prosecutors.
Of those 24 cases reported last year, Flores’ office only prosecuted 10. Prosecutors rejected 58 percent of cases referred by police because they “determined there was insufficient evidence to prove the defendant committed the criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.
This makes sex-related crimes one of the least prosecuted in Gila County, but it’s consistent with national studies showing prosecutors decline to pursue 50 to 75 percent of rape cases.
By contrast, when it comes to all felonies, the county attorney’s office declines 20 percent of cases submitted. In a third of felony cases, defendants take plea deals.
Experts admit sex crimes are difficult to prosecute. Prosecutors and police must deal with conflicting stories and generally a lack of evidence.
Several police reports the Roundup analyzed from 2010 followed this script.
“Allegations of a sexual nature are often the most challenging to review and consider,” Flores said.
“A prosecutor may be faced with trying to prove the allegations of a child that occurred years previously or the behavior of a recently traumatized adult victim. Victims of sexual assault may be openly upset, even hysterical, or they may be numb and seemingly calm.”
In many instances, victims find it difficult to relate what occurred and the accused offers a version very different from the victim’s.
“Rarely is there a third party witness that can offer any information as to the actual assault,” she said.
“It can be difficult to work with these types of opposing stories, but that is why we look for evidence that will support the victim’s account of what occurred.”
Sex-related crimes are often dependent on the credibility of the victim. If a girl is known for being promiscuous or her story seems unreliable, it can be difficult for prosecutors to prove. Although a crime may have occurred, the evidence is insufficient.
And because many victims wait to report a crime, any physical evidence is lost.
Police must collect enough evidence to make an arrest. It is up to the county attorney’s office to determine if medical records, forensic interviews, photographs of the scene, DNA, criminal records, admissions and/or behavior from the suspect support their account.
“Based on the evidence that we believe we can admit at trial, we determine which charges we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.
“This is a high burden and we recognize that for both the victim and the accused the decision to prosecute is a life-changing event.”
In addition, a victim often must overcome feelings of shame and embarrassment and be willing to assist with prosecution. Without a victim, there is no case.
“This is not an easy decision and often leads to delayed reports of sex offenses or lack of cooperation from the victim,” Flores said.
Women and children often do not report sex crimes because the perpetrator is a friend, boyfriend or even a family member.
Additionally, children may not know that what happened was wrong or that help is even available.
Teens also deal with peer pressure and bullying when they disclose they have been sexually abused.
This happened to one Payson teen who reported an assault in 2009.
The girl was younger than the boy, a popular senior. No one believed her story. Some students screamed at her at school and the girl received threatening phone calls from his family. The girl eventually dropped out of school and even contemplated suicide.
But the girl pressed on and the boy pleaded guilty.
Sadly, the harassment continued because the boy continued to claim innocence.
Experts say this is common.
Perpetrators often maintain a stance of not guilty long after a conviction that can stunt a victim’s recovery.
Note: This story omits misinformation about a restorative justice program in Pima County.