Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blunders And Excellence In Sexual Assault Cases

From the London Evening Standard:

Suburban street stalker Kirk Reid, 44, and taxi driver rapist John Worboys, 51, were finally jailed earlier this year after separately carrying out a succession of attacks across the capital.

The cases had already prompted an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission after it was revealed during the men's trials that blunders by detectives had allowed the pair to evade capture.

Today, however, it emerged that 14 officers, including at least one of superintendent rank, have been given “Regulation 9” notices by the investigators warning them that they could be liable for disciplinary action or prosecution.
This is an important move because these errors contributed to additional sexual assaults. Not only did these errors harm those who were not yet victims it harmed those victims who did what sexual assault victims are told to do. Report.

Too often malpractice in investigating sexual assault cases is only considered important if an innocent suspect or defendant is harmed when the reality is that injustice has a much wider scope and must have a much wider response.

Reid attacked 27 women that the police know of and Worboys attacked at least 14 woman, some who were assumed by investigators to be liars when they were telling the truth.

When the problems are this pervasive the solution can't just be to discipline particular police officers.

In contrast to the handling of those 2 cases in the UK, I watched a recent Dateline episode on the "wooded rapist," Robert Jason Burdick, who committed rapes for 14 years in 3 counties in the Memphis area before he was caught. But the delay in catching that serial rapist wasn't caused by police errors. The police processed all the evidence available and got DNA evidence from the first rape and subsequent rapes. Because the DNA evidence was examined and processed the police confirmed they were dealing with a serial rapist. What they didn't have was a name to go with the DNA.

Unlike some other cases, Burdick's DNA wasn't in any agency's warehouse unprocessed and the lab results weren't sitting unfiled and forgotten. There was no botched 911 call. When the oldest case was nearing the statute of limitations the prosecutors filed John Doe charges using his DNA as his identity rather than incorrectly assuming there was nothing they could do.

Because the police did their job consistently, Burdick was eventually spotted close to a reported sighting of a masked man. He was let go but only because there was no legal grounds to hold him or to search his vehicle. The investigators checked out his excuse for being in the area and when it was shown to be false they made sure to go after him and his DNA legally. Last year, I blogged about the challenge to that police stop of Burdick, but because the police weren't sloppy that challenge failed.

Burdick was convicted of the most recent rape, and is about to go to trial again for the first known rape, and what struck me first about that case beyond the technical details of the investigation was how the victims who agreed to be interviewed spoke highly of the police handling of their cases during the years when they had no suspect.

This combination of technical excellence and respectful treatment of rape victims is vitally important to avoiding botched cases but the needed steps are no secret and not just a matter of random good luck.

All 3 of these serial rapists were stranger rapists, but only Burdick broke into his victim's homes. Reid grabbed his victims as they were walking and Worboys raped women who got into his taxi. This difference can unfortunately impact investigators opinions of the victims. When rapes happen in good neighborhoods, after the rapist broke into a house, victims are at the lowest risk of being viewed negatively by investigators.

From the handling of Burdick's rapes I can't tell anything about how well those police departments handled other rape cases and other rape victims. If they didn't handle all reports of sexual assaults with this level of competence and respect for those who reported then they need to begin doing so.

This competence must extend beyond police departments. It must extend to school districts and parole systems and every organization. Competence must include laws and policies.

An example of this happened in the US Senate which recently passed an amendment submitted by my newest senator, Al Franken, which prohibits defense contractors from requiring arbitration from employees about their allegations of sexual assault. This amendment to the defense bill was passed after Jamie Leigh Jones testified to the senate about what happened to her in Iraq and after she made it home. While this amendment is good, others who are raped while on the job by coworkers may still be forced into secret, binding arbitration rather than being given the right to sue their employers.

This excellence in practice and rules matters for solving cases, but it also matters as deterrence. If those considering committing sex crimes know that no matter who they assault or how they assault that the police and everyone else will be committed to investigating them and prosecuting them, and will do that competently with the possibility of serious consequences, some of those people will decide committing the sex crime, or allowing bad practices, isn't worth the risk.

There can be no excuses accepted from governments who fail to get and maintain great investigation teams. There can be no excuses for procedures or laws which interfere with justice.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:12 AM   0 comments links to this post

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