What I Learned Prosecuting Sex Crimes
Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence, discussions about the entire process of victimhood, and representations of all sides of prosecuting a sex crime.
They were in the waiting room. Waiting for me. A scenario you wouldn’t wish on any child. Or any parent. Sitting in an ochre-colored room, in government offices, inside the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. A beautiful day waiting just outside. But today, today they were waiting for me. In a pit of shame, disgust, and uncomfortability.
My greeting meant a lot. This wasn’t the time, place, or scenario for an upbeat welcome. There was the child to think about, a 14-year-old girl, sitting in purgatory with her parents, knowing what they all knew. Or what they thought they knew. I was matter-of-fact about it. Because there was no other way.
I had already read the entire case file. All the initial statements. The police reports. The medical summary. And right before I opened that door to the waiting room for the first time, I suddenly realized something. The filing of charges was going to be up to me. Just. Me.
Before getting to the Sexual Battery Unit (SBU), I spent time in County Court (misdemeanors) and Circuit Court (felonies). And although I was a supervisor, at different times, in both courts, I was never in charge of filing. We had an entire division who filed the charges and we got the files after the case was set for a first court hearing.
Sex Crimes were different though. This unit made us responsible for making the ultimate decision to file charges or to justify why we didn’t. It’s the one time in my life that I was unsure if I wanted the power I was just given. Not because I didn’t trust myself and my ability to make the best decision, but because I knew every decision was wrought with peril.
To file charges is to ratify the victim’s account of the events, incorporating the physical evidence and witness testimony available. But to file charges is to ensure that the victim must testify. At the very least, at a deposition. At the most, at trial(s).
And it’s not a short cycle. Sex Crimes don’t go to trial in a month. Most don’t see a potential trial for more than a year. And during all the time before that, the victim remains in agony. From the crime. From the thought of facing their accuser. From the thought of having to talk about and simultaneously relive the events over and over again.
And from the shame. And before I opened that door I had to remind myself that there was a 14-year-old girl sitting in that room, next to her parents, and we were all about to discuss how she snuck out of the house, went to a party, and got roofied. How she doesn’t remember how many people had sex with her. How she woke up half-naked in a bed. And how the fate of the case was in my hands.
I remember when the case got thrown on my desk, like the least wanted piece of candy at Halloween. When all that’s left was Special Dark. That was this case. It had gone to trial and the state won before I was even in SBU. The defendant was sentenced to a lengthy prison stay. But the defense appealed. And they won. That case was on my desk.
But it’s even worse than you think. It was three years later. During the trial, the prosecutor introduced similar fact evidence in the case. The defendant was accused of forcible rape. He had seven prior rapes in Minnesota. The court, at the time, admitted evidence from a couple of those prior acts. This was why the case was overturned on appeal. So none of the similar act evidence would be available to me.
It doesn’t matter what should happen, it’s about what happened. Yes, it seems like we should be able to use evidence that a serial rapist had done this many times before. But unfortunately, the burden of admitting that kind of evidence, at least at the time in Florida, was very high. The modus operandi (the method of doing something) had to be strikingly similar. The prior incidents weren’t close enough, according to the Appeals Court.
So there I was. I had made it past that first meeting and had been in the unit for a few months now. But this was the type of challenge people hide from. Even seasoned prosecutors. But that wasn’t me. The victim, at the time of the incident, was a prostitute. And this was a moment of comprehension for me because to do this job, day in and day out, you have to reserve judgment in all ways.
This is where I gained an understanding of the true definition of victim.
It didn’t matter where someone was. It didn’t matter what their profession was. It didn’t matter if several bad decisions led to this one moment in time. None of that made any difference. It’s easy for people to say they would never judge someone who was raped, but it happens every day. It happens on the biggest stages. And it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.
But even me, a prosecutor in the Sexual Battery Unit, knew that the fact that my victim was a prostitute would be a storyline harangued to the jury, at the time of trial, to show that there was reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt, in this context, based solely on the fact that this person had traded sex for money in the past. So, surely she could not be raped.
But she could. She was. And now the fate of the case was in my hands.
He was in the waiting room with his mother. Yes, he. A 16-year-old alleged gang member. Sitting in that same ochre-colored room waiting to talk to me. Waiting to tell me the hardest story he will ever have to tell. Waiting to strip back every ounce of pride and masculinity inside of him, just so he can explain to me what happened in the park that day. Me, a stranger.
I didn’t know what to expect. But a lifetime of working with children was something I had going for me. I have an ability to connect to children (and later I found out, victims of crimes) in a very short amount of time. It’s because I don’t judge them for being who they are. Or for what happened to them. In this job, that wasn’t part of the job. And it meant everything in terms of connection.
I couldn’t lead him to my office, sit him down, and say, “So, tell me what happened.” He had to see me engage him eye-to-eye, face-to-face. He had to see that I was a regular person and I wasn’t there to make him do anything. He could tell me what he wanted to. He could tell me to go f*ck myself. But either way, he and I were in this together.
So he told me. Everything. About how he ended up in that park. And how a gun was held to his head. And how he had to do things he never thought he would have to do. And how he had to tell his mother, to save himself from the pain. But the pain wasn’t going away because we were in my ochre-colored office. I couldn’t make the pain go away.
Even when his attacker was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 33 years in prison, it didn’t take away the pain. And I didn’t do anything other than the job I was supposed to do. I don’t know if his life was better after that day. I do know that testifying, in front of a jury and judge, in a public courtroom about what happened to him, was mortifying. It wasn’t freeing. It wasn’t an elephant off his back. He was angry after he testified. I don’t even think he showed up for the verdict.
This is the dichotomy of prosecuting Sex Crimes. A win may be a win for society because we are able to keep a sexual predator off the streets for an extended amount of time. And this is a wonderful thing. But a guilty verdict doesn’t undo the pain of the victim. It doesn’t erase the incident. It doesn’t really do as much as anyone thinks, for the victim. Because the process of taking the case to trial takes a couple of years of constantly having to relive the incident in the name of justice.
And justice is not an equal partner in this equation. When it comes to Sex Crimes, the conviction rate was not very high when I was active. It still isn’t.
If you look at that graphic, 77% of rapes are not reported to the police. That means that for all I did, three-quarters of the assaults didn’t even make it to the police. And since only 4.6% of reports lead to arrest, the chances of me being able to help was on the smallest spectrum imaginable. If only 0.9% of cases get referred to prosecutors, you would assume those are the “best” cases.
But there is no “best” case in Sex Crimes. And if I had dwelled on all that was happening that I didn’t know about, I would have wallowed in fear and sadness 24 hours a day. I was glad to play my role in 0.5% of the cases that led to a felony conviction, but that means I was playing on a tiny field. And that is scary as hell.
Justice is not equal. Not even close. There are biases littered throughout the judicial system. And when it comes to Sex Crimes, it’s no different. Getting justice for the victims of Sex Crimes is the Little Engine That Could, but only if the train had no engine and the hill was the Wall on Game of Thrones. Because winning isn’t winning. It’s just a tiny drop in an overflowing bucket of anonymity.
From that 14-year-old girl, I learned a lot. It was my first day in SBU and when I brought her in, her parents came in with her to my office. And she looked at me out of the side of her eye and told me something I already knew. That one side-eye told me, “Get my parents the f*ck out of here.” And I did. Much to their dismay.
And I understood their reservation. And their fear. And their anger. And their sadness. And their loss of control. But this was between me and their daughter. So I cracked the door halfway and let them stay just out of earshot, but I learned a valuable lesson. The only way to know what the victim really wants, especially when they are a child, is to build rapport slowly outside the presence of their parents.
I would never get all of the details I needed in front of her parents. Shame. Embarrassment. Truth. Fear. So we talked about TV shows. And music. And as the parents got restless outside and kept checking in, I was building a bridge. A bridge that could collapse at any time. But it didn’t.
This case never got filed. There was no testable physical evidence. There were no witnesses who would testify to what they saw. The victim didn’t remember anything except willingly taking GHB, which I only uncovered outside the presence of her parents, and then waking up.
The drugs were not a knock against her as a person, she was still a child. But it changed the dynamic from being roofied which was how the case came in. Because the police interviewed her with her parents present. And she was embarrassed and ashamed to say that she did the drugs on her own.
And this is where it all gets murky. Because I am sure she was taken advantage of in some way. But there was no evidence. There were no witnesses. We weren’t even sure that someone had raped her now. And her parents were adamant about prosecuting anyone who was at the party. Which, as an almost-parent at the time, I understood. But we had nothing.
And there I was with my first case. Having to walk out and tell the parents we weren’t going to file charges. I got yelled at. I got reported. The detective on the case was infuriated. But when I asked them all what they thought we could prove they all recited a narrative that sounded trial-worthy, but it wasn’t what happened.
Maybe we were the only two people who understood what happened or didn’t happen that night. Maybe she was protecting herself. Maybe she was protecting her friends. But every bit of follow-up I did after that day rendered the same results. Nothing.
She taught me that some results just are. You may want something to happen. You may want to do justice. But sometimes you can’t. And trying to force justice isn’t possible. And the parents still wanted the detectives to make an arrest on a kid we couldn’t even verify was there.
It’s not all one way. It doesn’t always line up for you as a Sex Crimes prosecutor. Actually, it almost never does. And even when it does, it falls apart in your face at some point. Because there are no “good cases” when there is a victim involved.
From that former prostitute, I learned a lot. Because I tracked her down. And kept in touch with her. We talked about what justice meant to her and it meant making sure he did not get out of prison/jail. (He was sent to prison on the original sentence, but when it was overturned on appeal, he came back to County Jail with a hefty bond so he was going to be in-custody until we went to trial again.)
She showed up. She was open about her background and how she ended up there. She wasn’t apologetic for who she was. And she certainly wasn’t apologetic for being on that street corner when her attacker picked her up in his 18-wheeler. “I was a hooker. That didn’t mean I was consenting to rape,” she told the jury.
She sloughed off the defense attorney’s attempts to pigeonhole her into being a slut and a whore. She barked back when asked questions about “walking the street.” And she shot it straight when some of her memory wasn’t perfect. Her attacker is still in prison. He will die in prison. This was his eighth conviction for forcible rape. And his last.
I don’t know what she did with her life after the day he was sentenced. But I do know that we took the journey she wanted to take. To her, she got justice. And she stood up for the future victims that would have crossed his path. And she saved them. And in doing so, I hope she saved herself. For me, I was just doing my job. She did all the work. Because she showed up and told her truth.
From that 16-year-old boy, I learned a lot. I learned about the masks of masculinity that men wear. And why they are so hard to take off sometimes. He taught me even more about releasing judgment. Because he was in that park to sell drugs. To meet up with his gang. He wasn’t on a great path. But he was raped. And he had to come to talk to me in my ochre-colored office, with his mom.
We won the trial, but as I said, he didn’t care. Going through testifying and getting cross-examined hurt him. I could tell that he wished he hadn’t done it. I knew that when I left a message that the defendant was found guilty and would be in prison for a long time that I wouldn’t hear back from him. And I didn’t.
I don’t know what happened to him. If I’m being honest, I worried about him a lot. But my job had ended and he didn’t want my help. And while I helped protect the public, I often wonder if I helped him as a victim. Of course, I didn’t force him to testify, but I remember several times he wanted to opt out.
But he saved other people. Even if justice didn’t save him.
I was just doing my job. That’s what I learned prosecuting sex crimes. I wasn’t evidence. I wasn’t a counselor. I was there to do my job. But my job wasn’t getting guilty verdicts. My job wasn’t sending everyone I could to prison. My job was much more complicated than that.
My job was balancing the scales of justice with a victim’s preference. My job was uncovering more evidence through our connection and adding that to the scale. My job was to listen and never judge. My job was to do what was in the victim’s best interests and my job was to always, always respect the victims’ rights.
And it wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t easy when they were so scared to testify. It wasn’t easy when they didn’t care about getting raped. It wasn’t easy when I opened my case and the victim was an age that required only one digit. It wasn’t ever easy. Not one day. And it shouldn’t have been.
It was what it was. And continues be. A drop in the proverbial bucket of all the unreported cases that remain. In people’s pasts. In their memories. In their horror. In their lives. And I only wish I could’ve done more. I wish I could do more.
What I learned prosecuting sex crimes was an understanding of the true definition of victim. And although many of the stories still haunt me, I was just a bystander. I didn’t live through what they did. I haven’t lived through what you have. But I’m listening. I’m still listening. And I haven’t forgotten anything about any of my cases. However, I hope that some of the victims I worked with have.