If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.
Case workers at Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine, say they counseled 503 victims of alleged sex crimes last year. But only 76 filed a police report.
Victims often hesitate to seek justice because many fear they won’t be believed. Others don’t want to relive the trauma they experienced through lengthy legal proceedings. Sexual assault cases are difficult to prosecute since these crimes often occur in private settings. Aside from personal testimony, investigators often lack solid evidence to build a criminal case.
But District Attorney Natasha Irving says it’s time to reform how the legal system prosecutes sexual assault cases, so victims who come forward know they’ll be supported. Irving says prosecutors shouldn’t decline to prosecute a case just because they “think it’s too hard to prove.”
“Individually, I think that response is very damaging to a survivor,” she said.
Irving serves as the top prosecutor in Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties ― the same region that SASSMM serves.
SASSMM Executive Director Arian Clements estimates that about 34,000 people in the midcoast have experienced sexual violence — but only a small fraction seek help.
“If they weren’t believed initially, they don’t have faith that they’re going to be believed if they come forward again. Or that they somehow will be put on trial for what happened instead of the perpetrator,” Clements said. “There’s a lot of shame and blame that the victims often carry.”
It’s a stigma that follows victims into the legal system. Prosecutors might worry if a jury will find the victim’s story believable, in the absence of firm evidence. If a victim was under the influence of alcohol when the alleged assault occurred, traditionally the case is viewed as being “very weak,” according to Irving.
People tend to question the credibility of sexual assault allegations, according to Irving. But, only two to eight percent of sexual assault accusations reported to law enforcement turn out to be false, according to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is on par with other violent crimes.
“The questions are often, ‘Well what were you doing and what was your relationship with this person and did you put yourself in this situation?” Instead of saying ‘Did somebody commit a crime,” Irving said.
Irving has simplified the criteria for how her office will prosecute sexual assault allegations to a two-step pricess: 1. Is there a credible allegation? 2. Is the victim willing to move forward with prosecution knowing they might have to testify publicly?
Critics, including an attorney who defended a Camden student accused of sexual assault in a case against Irving earlier this month, say that lowering the standard for prosecuting these types of crimes can be harmful — especially in the “Me Too” era where more victims are coming forward with their stories.
But that shouldn’t be a primary concern, said Irving who failed to get a conviction in that case after the judge ruled the state had not met the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It didn’t feel good for any of us to lose that case. But I do think personally, I would rather show a victim that we will fight for them, than [rejecting a case] because it’s too hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Irving said. “We don’t want law enforcement or prosecutors to ever think that something is a ‘he said she said.’”
Since “rapes aren’t [typically] occurring in front of an audience,” Irving said prosecutors need to think outside of the box in terms of proving that an assault occurred. Relying on experts to testify on the effects of sexual trauma is one way to strengthen a case, she said.
While victims of sexual assault often are asked why they didn’t fight back, it’s a normal nuerobiological response to freeze or shut down when someone is experiencing trauma, Clements said.
Trauma also can cloud a victim’s memory, Clements said, and can fuel misperceptions that a victim is changing their story if their narrative evolves.
“Instead of that being used against them in terms of ‘Well she’s saying this now,’ it needs to be recognized as a sign of neurobiological trauma that has happened to the body,” Clements said.
Irving likens how sexual assault cases are currently viewed to how domestic violence cases were perceived 30 years ago, when prosecutors moved forward with very few of them. As the public became more educated on the realities and societal woes of domestic violence, more cases were prosecuted.
Irving says it’s time for a “come-to-Jesus-moment” about the realities of sexual assault.
“We need to start educating our children about their bodies and consent. We need to address this as a wider public health issue,” Irving said. “We can’t prosecute this away.”