Why charges are rarely filed when women are sexually assaulted in Virginia

Posted at 1:24 AM, Nov 06, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jesse Matthew Jr., the man charged in connection with the disappearance of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, was accused of sexual assault at two different universities in Virginia, but never charged. In one of those instances, according to the Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney, the alleged victim stopped returning prosecutors calls, so the case was dropped.

That, CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit learned, happens frequently and sexual assault cases are rarely prosecuted, especially when the assault happens on a college campus.

Take for example third-year student Alex Pinkleton, who feels at home sitting on the University of Virginia's famous lawn doing her homework.

University of Virginia student Alex Pinkleton said she was sexually assaulted last year at school.

University of Virginia student Alex Pinkleton said she was sexually assaulted last year at school.

But nearly one year ago did not feel safe at the school anymore.

"Just his presence was pretty threatening," Pinkleton said about a fellow student who she said sexually assaulted her in November 2013 after a night of heavy drinking. "I was blacking out or in a state of black out. When I came to consciousness there was a naked stranger on top of me."

Pinkleton said she did not immediately report the attack because she partially blamed herself and wanted to forget about it.

"I still felt like it was my fault because I shouldn’t have been drinking that much to the point where I was blackout," Pinkleton said.

Eventually, she told the university, but she decided not to go to the police, opting for an informal trial through the university instead that led to her assailant admitting to wrongdoing and taking education classes in masculinity and sexual violence.

"No one I’ve talked to has wanted to go to criminal trial, mainly because lack of evidence, the shame, and having to go through that in front of people in law enforcement," Pinkleton said.

In fact, according to data from the Virginia State Police, only about one quarter of all reported sexual assaults in the entire state of Virginia between 2010 and 2012 resulted in an arrest.

John Venuti is the Chief of Police at Virginia Commonwealth University where the arrest ratio in sexual assault cases is even more striking.

Melissa Hipolit questioned VCU Police Chief John Venuti about sexual assaults on VCU campus.

Melissa Hipolit questioned VCU Police Chief John Venuti about sexual assaults on VCU campus.

"Out of all the cases we see in law enforcement, sexual assault is by far the most difficult to investigate," Venuti said.

Our investigation found that since 2000, charges were filed in just 14 percent of reported sexual assaults at VCU, according to sexual assault numbers provided by the school.

"The historic, traditional approach used by police that’s used in every single investigation in every single crime, simply does not work while investigating sexual assault cases," Venuti said.

Venuti said that just in the past few years, police departments have changed their approach to investigating reported sexual assaults.

"It’s really driven by what that survivor wants, and that’s a paradigm shift and a lot of people really really have trouble understanding that," Venuti said.

As part of that, making an arrest is not always the end game.

"If I had to identify the ideal outcome in every single crime and every single case involving crime here at VCU, within the city of Richmond, arrest, prosecution, penitentiary. If it’s a serious crime for the police, that is the ultimate outcome. But, like I said, anytime you’re involving a paradigm shift, it’s a new way of thinking," Venuti said.

That new way of thinking involves working closely with victim advocates like Fatima Smith from the YWCA Richmond.

Smith said we need to stop putting the pressure on people who have already been victimized to press charges as a way of stopping sexual assaults.

"We need to take on a community responsibility approach in saying we all need to look out for one another, instead of saying you have to report this because if you don’t he’ll just keep doing it or she’ll just keep doing it," Smith said.

Especially, because people may not realize how involved and invasive the process can be to bring an attacker to justice.

"The entire process, from entering the triage doors, until being discharged from the hospital, takes about six to eight hours," Shelly Brown, a Forensic Nurse at VCU Medical Center, said about what happens when a patient shows up at the hospital after an assault.

Shelly Brown said her patients are so traumatized, some of them refuse to allow evidence to be collected.

Shelly Brown said her patients are so traumatized, some refuse to allow evidence to be collected.

There is a 72-hour window after a sexual assault when crucial evidence can be gathered, but many times victims miss that window.

Brown said her patients are so traumatized, some of them refuse to allow evidence to be collected.

"A lot of times there is not enough evidence to support the case going to trial," Brown said.

Pinkleton said that is why it is so important for family members and friends of victims to immediately offer emotional support.

"With a lot of survivors I’ve talked to, the first person they disclose to sometimes says 'oh, what were you wearing, or no, he’s a nice guy.' and then the survivor is much less likely to report because they start doubting themselves," Pinkleton said.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently created a task force devoted to combating sexual violence on college campuses.

One of the task force's members said a main objective of the group is to make it more likely that people will report to police, and make sure more perpetrators of sexual assault are convicted of their crimes.



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