Marie was just 18 years old when she was bound, gagged and raped at knifepoint in her own home by a masked intruder in 2008. When she reported her assault to her local police department in Lynnwood, Washington, she was charged with a misdemeanor for false reporting, a crime punishable by up to one year in jail. Three years later, in Colorado, state police were investigating a string of similar but seemingly unrelated sexual assaults across several jurisdictional lines. All the women described a masked intruder wielding a weapon who bound, gagged and raped them repeatedly in their own homes—just like Marie. Were the assaults connected? And if so, what led law enforcement to disbelieve Marie, the first of the serial rapist’s victims? Had the police investigated Marie’s case more deeply, could they have prevented the rapes in Colorado?
Published in December 2015 and written by Pro Publica‘s senior reporter T. Christian Miller in partnership with The Marshall Project‘s Ken Armstrong, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, shines a light on the challenges faced by victims of rape when reporting their assaults to police, and the ways in which cultural attitudes about rape can negatively impact how law enforcement investigates sexual assault cases.
The Ms. Blog caught up with Pro Publica’s Miller to talk about the “historical skepticism” toward survivors of sexual assault, busting the bogus “righteous victim” stereotype and the steps law enforcement can take today to improve their handling of rape investigations.
Ms. Blog: Why tell this story?
T. Christian Miller: I had been working on a series of stories about how police prosecute sexual assault in America [including] a story about the many different police departments [that] essentially whiffed [the] investigation of former football player Darren Sharper [who was accused of raping a number of women], and one of my sources had been involved in or was aware of the prosecution of [this] case in Colorado and she flagged it [for] me as an example of good police work. So I began talking to the police in Colorado who had done the work on the case, and that’s how it started.
Initially, it was just a story about how these cops had done so well tracking this particular attacker [Marc O’Leary] down [which led to O’Leary’s sentencing of] 327 years in prison. That number was huge and it was just so awesome to see what the police in Colorado had done. Pretty early on in the reporting, I’d made an effort to reach out to the attorney for the victim in Washington and when I did that, that’s when I found out that Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project was working on this story [too], and we decided to work on the piece together. As soon as Ken brought Marie’s incredibly moving story about a woman who reported her assault and had not been believed to the table, it combined [with my cops and robbers angle] to make such a fascinating story.
In your opinion, how do cultural attitudes about rape affect law enforcement’s ability to investigate rape cases?
I think sexual assault has a host of issues around it that are different from other crimes. I think police are naturally skeptical. They deal in a world where there’s a lot of people who don’t tell the truth or try to commit crimes, [but] I think police investigators by nature also want to find out what’s going on. They’re not going to immediately believe anybody, but with sexual assault, in the justice system as a whole, there [is] a built-in or historical skepticism toward sexual assault victims that has not entirely disappeared. There’s a longer history going all the way back to the 1600s when judges would warn juries [to be] careful [about] believing women because [according to them] rape is a crime where it’s easy to falsely accuse somebody. That [was] a standard instruction to the jury back then and I think that carried down through the American justice system.
Through your investigation, what emerged as the biggest misconception about rape and rape victims?
I think the biggest misconception is that there are [supposedly] these giant numbers of women who come forward to falsely report rape. That’s not supported by any kind of studies. I think also that the myths around rape include [this] idea of the “righteous victim,” a woman who is raped by a stranger who puts up resistance to that stranger and who is visibly, emotionally upset by the attack; that is a stereotype which certainly occurs, but isn’t all that common. [The most] common [form of] rape in this country is [perpetrated by] someone you know, an acquaintance of some kind. Some women fight off their attacker, some do not. Some women are visibly [and] outwardly upset, some women keep it inside. So there’s this kind of pernicious stereotype that women have to act a certain way, be a certain way after being sexually assaulted that gets in the way of good police work.
Two women, Det. Stacy Galbraith and Sgt. Edna Hendershot, were the driving force behind linking the seemingly separate cases in this story to one serial rapist. What role, if any, did their gender play in moving this investigation forward?
Something Stacy Galbraith said, as a woman, are women more likely to confide in her. And I think—I mean, there’s nothing firm on this—but one would sort of assume that’s true. It’s easier to unburden yourself about a crime like this, which has a stigma around [it], to the same gender. As to whether it makes a difference in terms of the investigation itself, I can only say one person pointed this out to me: If you have a rapist in your community, a serial rapist like O’Leary, and he was only attacking female victims, then the fact of the matter is that the men in the community are not as much at risk as females because he’s a serial rapist who’s only choosing female victims. For a serial killer who is just killing whomever, everyone’s going to be a potential victim versus a serial rapist whose potential victims are half the population, it would only make sense that [the] half of the population most likely to be victims are going to be most interested in solving that case. The people most likely to be victimized by the criminal are [also] the most likely to have a reason to investigate that. Now, obviously, most men have wives and sisters and mothers at the very least, so they would have a strong interest as well. But [according] to this cop that I talked to in Texas, this might be at work.
What are three things law enforcement can do to improve their handing of sexual assault cases?
So, number one, the most obvious is listen. Everyone we spoke with on the law enforcement side and in the sexual assault community said at the very least, one needs to listen closely to these accusations and then investigate them fully. That’s just obvious, but it bears reminding. You should listen to a victim and then investigate what their accusations are.
Number two, track down the background of your alleged assailant. There are some studies out there which suggest rapists are more likely to offend again than other criminals, so looking back to previous residences, previous reports of rape in other jurisdictions. In Colorado, the attacker, Mark O’Leary, actually knew that the police didn’t do a good job of crossing jurisdictional lines and so he very deliberately [chose] victims who lived in different jurisdictions to make it more difficult to investigate them. Rape is a crime where you really want to pay attention to that history of behavior, so just that simple act of look[ing] at a rapist’s history might be of help.
And then number three, use the tools that are available to you. [Those] tools include the FBI database, which is called ViCAP, it includes DNA databases, it includes the evaluation of rape kits. All of these are things that are available to police right now that they can avail themselves to, but they don’t always, so use the tools that are available to you.
What do you hope to add to the national conversation about sexual assault?
I wanted to prominently feature the issue of false reporting and what that looks like for a victim who reports rape and is charged, [unjustly in this case] with false reporting. [In addition,] we both wanted to get out front police investigations of rape and how they can be improved. The conceit of the series was to look at what the cops can do. It was a search for solutions. A lot of the coverage [of sexual assault] has been focused on how it is not paid attention to, it has been focused on sexual assault in different locations in cultural fields and campuses, so [we] wanted to [ask], what is it that the police are doing or not doing to attack this problem?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user four12 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0