Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: The Chilling Effect of the Strauss-Kahn dismissal

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 26, 2011

District Attorney Cyrus Vance filed a 25-page memorandum in support of his motion to dismiss the sexual assault charges against French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Vance’s pleading alleged the victim, “has not been truthful on matters great and small” and has the ability to present “fiction as fact with complete conviction.” Those are strong words. The ramifications for this victim are obvious; however, the ripple effect of Vance’s decision may have consequences for sexual assault victims across the country and around the world.

The Strauss-Kahn investigation "certainly makes it a more challenging environment, both for victims and on the prosecution side," said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

According to Department of Justice figures compiled by RAINN, six out of 10 sexual assaults are never reported. "Of the 40 percent that are reported, roughly half will never lead to an arrest -- and of the cases remaining, many of those won't lead to prosecution," Berkowitz said. "So when you boil it down, 15 out of 16 attackers will never spend a day in prison," he added.

Soon after Strauss-Kahn’s arrest the victim’s credibility came into question. Well-heeled investigators retained by Strauss-Kahn’s defense team leaked damaging information to the media and apparently shared it with prosecutors. Victim advocacy groups are alarmed. Vigorous campaigns to undermine the credibility of victims may make sexual assault victims more hesitant to come forward out of fear that they will receive the same treatment.

The idea that only women with a perfect past and a tidy lifestyle will be able to escape the scrutiny that comes with reporting a sexual assault causes a chilling effect that will not only prevent justice from being served, but will keep women from receiving the help and support they need and deserve.

If the victim fabricated her story, it would be unfortunate because "it would perpetuate the stereotype that victims lie about their assaults," said Rita Garza of victim's services agency Safe Horizon.

"The reality is that very few people lie about sexual assault," Garza said. "It is a low one to three percent."

Women feel vulnerable and alone after sex crimes and need to feel confident someone will believe their stories. "Even if she has had credibility problems outside of that day, a strong prosecutor would have said we are ready to stand up for her because it was a crime," said Diane Rosenfeld, a professor at Harvard Law School.

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