Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unfounded Rape Reports and Unfounded Excuses

In the face of rumors swirling around that her boss, Patricia Jessamy, may face a serious challenger this year, State’s Attorney spokesperson Margaret T. Burns remains true to form.

With Baltimore leading the nation in “unfounded” rape reports, and various agencies and advocates getting ready to review those reports, Burns disclaims any responsibility or knowledge. Instead, as reported by the Sun, she “points to a longstanding struggle between the Police Department and the prosecutor’s office about who has ‘charging rights’ in sexual abuse cases.”

Who is she kidding? Both agencies have “charging rights.” The police can file a statement of charges. The state’s attorney’s office can take a case to the grand jury and ask for an indictment. In fact, that’s what it did to ruin the investigation of a rape of prostitute by a police officer.

And when an innocent teenager was kept in jail for seven months, Burns claimed that the police charged the case even when her own office obtained the indictment. Burns can’t help herself. The lies just keep on coming.

She claims that “We have no way of knowing about these unfounded cases…Most of the time, these cases are cloaked under the secrecy that is associated with law enforcement investigations.”

“Cloaked” my eye. Burns admits that prosecutors are handling at least one of those unfounded cases, and that nurses at Mercy Medical Center have shared their concerns about how police investigators talk to victims of sexual assault.

In other words, Jessamy had reason to know that there might be a problem and failed to go to Commissioner Fred Bealefeld about it. In trying to indict the police Burns indicted Jessamy instead.

Perhaps all these “unfounded” reports of rape are improper shortcuts to dropping cases that can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Rape cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute successfully. It nearly always comes down to one person’s word against another.

But it’s even harder than that. Women are expected to behave as if all men are dirty dogs who will aggressively pursue sexual relations with them. If they don’t, if they are naïve or careless or trusting or drunk or otherwise not on guard, then juries will hold it against them. It’s the woman’s responsibility to avoid unwanted sex because they should expect men to do whatever it takes to get it. That’s the courtroom dynamic.

So police may be inclined to un-found reports that stand no chance of success in court, especially when the women involved don’t meet their standard of real “victims.” Prosecutors might turn a blind eye rather than add another case to their docket. Who knows at this point what’s behind the large number of unfounded reports?

But I do know that Burns is full of it when she claims that Jessamy’s office knew nothing and could have done nothing about it. And I also know that victims of sexual assault need an ear, whatever the ultimate chances of success in court.

I remember one of my first rape cases, that of a woman who had gone out for the evening with a friend of hers. They met a man who seemed very nice, and he invited the woman back to his place to watch some TV. As soon as he turned it on, he turned on her and had sexual intercourse with her. She was shocked and confused, felt helpless under his weight, and did nothing. When it was over, she left and called the police.

When I heard her story, I knew I didn’t have a case. She hadn’t said “no” in words or action, a legal requirement of rape. But I also knew she was telling the truth and had been traumatized by the incident. I just kept listening until I could figure out what to say. Finally I asked her what she wanted to happen next.

She took me off the hook, saying she didn't want to pursue the case. She felt humiliated and didn't think anyone would believe her. I told her that I was so very sorry that this had happened to her.

She broke down and cried. “It means everything to me that someone believes me,” she said. And added, “Next time I feel lonely I will just stay home and read my Bible.

What victims of sexual assault need is a listening ear. An open mind. Police who behave respectfully. And a State’s Attorney who quits her shameless posturing and acts on their behalf.

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