As attitudes toward sexual violence shift, bringing predators to justice remains difficult
June 21, 2018
Stepping into Courtroom T at the Summit County Justice Center in Breckenridge, you might first notice how bright the lights are. The ceilings are high and the windows are small. There isn't much sunlight.
It's empty now, but in a couple of weeks it could be packed with dozens of people. Some you'll recognize, but many you won't.
The witness stand is toward the front. The defendant will be sitting directly in front of you, but you don't have to look at him if you don't want to. His attorney will be sitting next to him, ready to ask what you were wearing that night, or how much you had to drink.
Didn't you tell the defendant he was cute?
Weren't you dancing with him?
Nobody forced you to drink, did they?
But before that, you'll need to tell the court what happened the night you were raped. Speak directly into the microphone. The stenographer might ask you to slow down.
Giving victims a preview of the courtroom is one of the last steps in bringing sex offenders to justice, which is often a long, difficult process.
Victims must relive their trauma in open court, sharing intimate details of their lives with total strangers.
Prosecutors must sometimes present limited evidence cast under the haze of drug- or alcohol-induced memory loss.
Perhaps most daunting, victim advocates say, are the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault circulating in the popular imagination and the structure of criminal trials, which are not designed with victims in mind.
The #MeToo movement, which prompted a national reckoning over sexual harassment and violence, has been an encouraging sign to many, who hope that greater awareness and changing attitudes will prevent assaults from occurring in the first place.
In the meantime, courtrooms like those at the Summit County Justice Center will remain a final, if imperfect, check against sexual violence. There, an energetic group of investigators, prosecutors and victim advocates work aggressively to bring offenders to justice.
Last year in Summit County, 22 people, all men, were formally charged with sexual assault or related crimes.
Those translated to 28 total sexual assault charges through last November, according to the District Attorney's Office, placing Summit at the top of Colorado's Fifth Judicial District for felony sex crime charges. Neighboring Eagle County had 18, while the smaller Clear Creek and Lake counties each had four.
Each case is unique, but there are common threads. The victims are usually vulnerable, plied with alcohol or exploited by someone they trusted. There are rarely witnesses.
Early last year, a former ski area employee allegedly carried a drunk, vomiting woman to a bathroom, where he raped her as she kneeled over a toilet. The woman's friends told police they caught the man in the act with his pants around his ankles.
Many victims were subdued with alcohol, but some with outright violence.
In March, a man from Texas threw his girlfriend on a bed at a hotel in Frisco and choked her by the neck until her friends came upstairs. Before he left, he grabbed her genitals and threw her belongings from a balcony. (He pleaded guilty to felony menacing and received a deferred sentence).
Nine of Summit's 22 cases involved child victims, all of whom knew the accused closely. Two perpetrators were the victims' fathers. Both pleaded guilty to felonies and are serving eight- and five-year prison sentences.
If national estimates are a guide, however, these cases are merely a fraction of the assaults that occur in Summit County. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police, making it the most underreported major crime. An estimated 91 percent of victims are women.
Summit County prosecutors say that during jury selection for sexual assault trials, roughly one in four people report that they have been sexually assaulted. Often, it's the first time they've told anyone.
BLAMED AND SHAMED
Underreporting is a complex but understandable problem. Kathleen Maher, a violence prevention coordinator at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, hopes to eliminate it.
"I think victims are very cognizant of that fact that they might not be believed and they might be blamed, because historically that's what happened," she said.
The popular imagination is littered with misconceptions about sexual assault, and juries track them into the courtroom whether they know it or not.
Some especially persistent myths revolve around alcohol, which is overwhelmingly the most common date rape drug. But countless advertisements, movies and cultural references form lighthearted associations between drinking and sex. Those lend themselves to victim blaming, often a go-to strategy for defense attorneys.
"Everyone should practice personal responsibility, and we're advocates for that," Maher said. "But if you're drinking and you get drunk, you deserve a hangover. You don't deserve to be sexually assaulted."
The mindset influences victims as well, and its chilling effect on reporting can be seen in several of Summit County's 2017 cases.
One victim waited nearly six months to report being raped while passed out at a party in Silverthorne because "she felt people would think she caused the assault because she was drinking alcohol." (The perpetrator pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was sentenced to four years supervised probation and 60 days in jail on May 14).
The woman first went to a psychiatrist, saying the incident had sent her spiraling into deep depression. She felt lost, giving up on the things she loved. Time seemed to pass differently, and she had trouble explaining her feelings.
The woman's experience demonstrates the range of physical and emotional health problems that can follow victims for years after an assault. Like many, her quest for justice began in the health care system.
BUSIER AND BUSIER
The forensic examination room at St. Anthony is tucked away in a corner of the emergency wing. Typically, it's the first stop for victims of sexual assault, where specially trained nurses document injuries and collect evidence.
St. Anthony has the only 24/7, all-ages forensic nurse program between Denver and Grand Junction. Its patient numbers have more than tripled since 2015.
"We're busier and busier each year," said Mary Skowron, who has worked as a forensic nurse at St. Anthony for seven years and run the Forensic Nurse Examiner program for three.
In 2017, Summit's forensic nurses treated 175 patients, compared with only 50 in 2015. One-third of them were victims of sexual violence, and one-sixth were from Summit County. The rest were from seven nearby counties.
"Often, we are the first individuals they encounter in the professional system," Skowron explained. "We have many patients who come in who have not talked to advocates, not talked to law enforcement. They've just come to us seeking medical care."
It's delicate work. Forensic nurses are trained to meticulously document even the smallest injuries and collect tiny bits of potential evidence — things like hair fibers or skin under fingernails. Exams can take as long as seven hours, belying the notion that false reports are even remotely common.
"People don't make this stuff up," Skowron said. "And research really shows that false reporting, especially when it comes to sexual violence, is very minimal." (The prevalence of false reporting is between 2 and 10 percent, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
It typically takes St. Anthony four months to train a new nurse, but turnover is high. Often, nurses are pushed away by a combination of vicarious trauma, long hours on call and frustration with the court system, which can subject their patients to grueling cross-examination and attacks by defense attorneys.
The program has already lost three nurses this year. Since Skowron took over three years ago, at least 10 have come and gone.
"We're neutral when it comes to the criminal justice process, but it's hard when you did an exam and you spent four or five hours with a patient," Skowron said. "Our role as nurses is to believe our patients … once we go to court it's a very different role. We're advocating for science — for the medical care."
Nurse testimony can provide a boost for prosecutors at trial, providing dozens of photos and pages of meticulous notes taken immediately after an assault. Several years ago, Skowron was rarely called to testify. Now, it's become a more routine part of the job.
"They're prosecuting more cases than when I started forensic nursing," she said. "Cases rarely used to move forward, whereas now I feel like they really are taking on more challenging ones."
The first sexual assault case deputy DA Lisa Hunt worked on is still the most high profile.
As an intern in 2003, she helped prosecutor Mark Hurlbert's team handle the endless stream of motions filed by attorneys for Kobe Bryant, who was accused of raping a woman in an Eagle hotel. The case was dropped and subsequently sealed after the woman, who received hate mail and death threats from Bryant's fans, refused to testify.
Now, Hunt leads Summit County's Sexual Assault Review Team, a group that evaluates reports and makes recommendations on whether or not to prosecute. Since she assumed the role nearly two years ago, the team has reviewed 30 cases and chosen to proceed with 18 of them.
"Sexual assault is very difficult to prosecute for a number of reasons," she said.
Often, cases hinge on whether or not the victim consented. But proving what someone was thinking at the time of an alleged assault can be difficult, especially when there weren't other witnesses.
Under District Attorney Bruce Brown, the Fifth Judicial District has aggressively prosecuted sexual assaults, pursuing tough cases and using its discretion to track toward progressive notions of consent.
"It is a symbiotic push and pull between society and the justice system, and neither one can be too far ahead of or behind the other," he said in an interview. "Not every allegation is going to warrant criminal prosecution."
Of the 22 sexual assault cases made in Summit County last year, seven are still pending or awaiting trial, three have fugitive defendants, one was dismissed and one is confidential, possibly involving a juvenile defendant.
Seven have so far pleaded guilty, and one was convicted at trial. Last October, a jury found Paul Garvin guilty of class-two felony sexual assault after a graphic, weeklong trial.
Garvin and his three co-defendants, who successfully moved their cases to Eagle County and await trial, were accused of assaulting a woman in a Silverthorne apartment while she was blackout drunk and incapable of consenting.
Three videos of the incident provided key evidence, along with photos of the woman's extensive injuries. In March, Garvin was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. There was anguish on both sides of the courtroom.
"There rarely feels like there's a 'win' on a sexual assault case," Hunt said, noting that the victim's trauma is rarely undone by a guilty verdict. She argued the case alongside Brown.
It was a controversial case, especially since Garvin is a longtime local with deep ties to Summit County. But for Maher, the violence prevention coordinator, it was a turning point for the community.
"Things are shifting," she said. "People are recognizing that not being able to provide consent is sexual assault. As a society as a whole we're moving toward that. Even five, 10 years ago it used to be, 'Oh you were drunk; it's fine.' Now we're moving toward, that's actually not legal."
Story continues below graphic.
As the DA's office aggressively prosecutes sexual assault cases, some turn out to be outright losses. Two cases from 2017 ended in acquittal at trail, and both demonstrated the difficulty of prosecuting sexual assaults. In both cases, the defense argued that the DA's office was overreaching and "criminalizing bad sex."
Brown, however, said he isn't keeping score.
"Some people may say the only successful conclusion would be a conviction," he said. "I say that part of a successful conclusion, in the absence of a conviction, is the recovery of the survivor, who remains intact after this assault. And oftentimes that takes a lot of counseling and time in order to heal. But we give them those resources early."
Sexual assaults are the most common felony cases to go to trial, in part because defense attorneys are often confident they can sow enough reasonable doubt to win acquittal. Pleading guilty to a sex offense can also carry life-altering consequences — including a spot on the sex offender registry — that make plea deals less attractive to defendants.
In the Fifth, only 2 percent of felony filings go to trail, but 10 percent of sexual assaults do, meaning victims of a uniquely intimate crime are forced to testify with disproportionate frequency.
"The criminal justice process, especially in a trial setting, has not been geared toward believing victims, making victims comfortable, making victims feel heard and valued," said Maher, who is frequently in court to observe trials and hearings. "That's not really what historically happens."
Part of that is simply The Constitution, which gives defendants, but not victims, a right to silence. The resulting dynamic often sets up victims for attack.
Some improvements have been made.
In 2015, the State Legislature passed a law mandating that all defendants charged with sex offenses see a judge before posting bond, allowing the court to tailor bond conditions to protect victims.
In 2016, Brown worked with State Representative Millie Hamner, whose district includes Summit County, on a bill allowing multi-jurisdiction sexual assault cases with child victims to be combined, preventing young victims from having to testify multiple times.
But the legal system still compels accusers to prove their case publicly, and since that overall dynamic is unlikely to change, the best the DA's office can do is leverage the wide network of support services available to victims in Summit County.
"In larger jurisdictions these cases just become numbers, whereas here, I don't feel like that happens," Skowron said. "I feel like our response and our prevention efforts are outstanding — above average."
Skowron and her nurses are typically the first to see victims, and they pride themselves on delivering compassionate care in awful circumstances.
Trained counselors from Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault are often next. If a case goes to trial, they will likely be in the gallery to support a victim during and after their testimony.
Child victims present a range of complications for support staff and law enforcement alike, but soon, they will be better equipped. On June 13, officials opened the TreeTop Center, a child advocacy center in Breckenridge where trained specialists can interview young victims in a child-friendly environment.
The nearest such facilities before were in Glenwood Springs and Denver, and filling in that gap took a broad community effort involving local governments, law enforcement agencies and nonprofits.
"I feel like people in this community really care about this issue," Maher said. "There are some places where it might not even be a priority. But here, people know that this is a problem and they want to do something about."
Last October, the New York Times and New Yorker broke stories detailing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Dozens of women would go on to level similar allegations against him, leading to the collapse of his film production company and arrest on Friday, May 25, in New York City on rape charges.
Along the way, scores of women and men shared their stories of victimization on social media and in the press, toppling celebrities and kingmakers suddenly revealed as serial predators. The social media hashtag MeToo went viral, becoming shorthand for a national reckoning over harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace.
For the dozens of people in Summit County who investigate, prosecute and support victims of sexual violence, the #MeToo movement has been a welcome tailwind — to an extent. Most say the pervasiveness of sexual violence has been clear to them for years.
"It's just made it more public," Hunt said. "It's not anything that people in criminal justice didn't already know about. Awareness ebbs and flows, and right now we're on one end of that pendulum."
The courts must follow the public, as Brown noted. But the public's notions of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior seem to be shifting. And while the pace of mighty figures being toppled over harassment and assault allegations has slowed, the revelations have shaken a culture of impunity and complicity.
During his closing rebuttal at the end of the Garvin trial — which unfolded just before #MeToo became a rallying cry — Brown challenged the jury to look inward, telling them, "You are the conscience of this community in 2017 and you have recognized that … people's conception of what constitutes sexual assault has changed."
Decades ago, the Garvin case would not have even been investigated, much less reported to police, Brown said. In those days, sexually assaulted women were often simply told to talk to their pastor.
"Decades ago a woman couldn't be raped by her husband, so if you were a woman who was married, there is no legal remedy for being assaulted," Brown said in the interview. "So we've had to bring those biases into the 21st century. I think we're undergoing a re-evaluation of what it means to be a complainant of sexual assault or harassment and whether you should be believed."
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