Victim-centered Sexual Abuse Investigations Abandon Concept of Neutrality
by David Reutter
Criminal justice reform advocates are pushing back against a new trend to “always believe the victim” in sexual assault cases, which has given rise to “victim-centered and offender-focused” investigations.
The victim-centric trend has led to a 20-point manifesto called the “You Have Options” law enforcement program, which encourages a departure from traditional police investigative techniques.
One of the points allows the “victim or other reporting party [to] remain anonymous” – which makes it hard for the accused to address the claims of their unknown accuser. Another allows victims to “report using an online form or a victim may choose to have a sexual assault advocate report on their behalf.”
Disturbingly, another point requires investigators to “collaborate with victims during the investigative process and respect a victim’s right to request certain investigative steps not be conducted.” For example, the alleged victim may ask that witnesses not be interviewed.
The University of Texas (UT) created a new blueprint to train campus law enforcement officers when conducting sexual assault investigations. According to Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the most egregious directive in the blueprint is that traditionally “neutral” investigators should actively work to “anticipate” and “counter” defense strategies.
The blueprint instructs officers on the types of defenses that students accused of sexual abuse may use, and what kind of evidence is required to counter them.
“An investigator who is trying to anticipate and counter defense strategies in the course of his/her investigation is not acting as a neutral fact-finder – that is, someone who is trying to find out what actually happened,” Harris stated.
Even when an alleged victim changes their story, the UT blueprint says they should be believed, as “inconsistencies and vagueness can become the facts of the case that lend support to the case as they can be a sign of trauma.” Investigators are also instructed that an accused suspect who “appears to make more sense” should not be seen as credible.
University of Virginia student Victor Zheng became the subject of a victim-centered sexual abuse investigation. In July 2013, his ex-girlfriend claimed he sexually assaulted her the year before while both were in high school. She did not provide a date or month and denied they had a romantic relationship at the time.
Three months later, Zheng was arrested while in a history class. He proved that a romantic relationship existed and passed a lie detector test. A prosecutor dropped the rape and abduction charges, but Zheng incurred $60,000 in attorney fees, spent six days in jail and lost a semester in school.
The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI) has launched an initiative “to address the over-criminalization of sexual conduct and to end wrongful convictions of sexual assault.” It notes that in the 1980s, a child abuse panic swept the United States; abandoning the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” led to the tragic result of more than “80 parents and child care providers” being wrongfully convicted. Only recently have some of those cases unraveled.
CPI compared victim-centered investigations to rape cases involving black men during the Jim Crow era, and the implications have serious consequences for the accused.
As Zheng asked, “[I]s our society truly safer when we have investigators who are willing to put people behind bars on the flimsiest of evidence?”
Meanwhile, a number of groups continue to promote victim-centered investigations. For example, one of the workshops at the May 2017 Conference on Crimes Against Women, related to domestic violence offenders, emphasized “the importance of a victim centered approach.” And a September 15, 2017 webinar presented by EVAWI (End Violence Against Women International) instructed prosecutors and law enforcement officials on “how to incorporate a victim centered approach throughout the life of a case.”
If our criminal justice system is in fact supposed to be fair and just, then victim-centered investigations make no more sense than offender-centered investigations.
Sources: Washington Examiner, www.prosecutorintegrity.org, www.dailycaller.com, www.ovcttac.org, www.reportingoptions.org, www.evawintl.org, www.conference caw.org