Monday 24 January 2011 - Filed under Uncategorized
Why would rape victims not want to pursue prosecution? As I once heard the Assistant DA explain to victim after victim, justice takes years, and often even the victims and prosecutors who do everything right don’t get justice at all. The investigation and trial will be consuming. You’ll have to give up work, you’ll have to relive the events of your rape over and over again, and your loved ones will be witness to it all. You’ll be treated like the criminal. The most intimate details of your life will be laid bare before the public. If your attacker makes bail or is acquitted, the fear of reprisal may be even worse than the fear they’ll do it again if they remain unprosecuted. In the face of that, who wants “justice?” Who wants to be exposed and ridiculed in front of strangers, when you’ve already been exposed and humiliated by your attacker? Who wants to give up that much more of your time and effort and emotional investment, after everything that was already taken from you, and all the effort you’ll have to make just to recover from it? Many victims feel it would be better to drop it and move on and heal the best they can. Can you blame them?
Despite the victim’s rights enumerated under Article I, Section 35 of the Tennessee Constitution, crimes ultimately aren’t against victims. Crimes are against the State. Or as our indictment says, “against the peace and dignity of the State of Tennessee.” When a person is murdered, for instance, there may not be a victim to approach the police or the District Attorney looking for justice. Sometimes the community is outraged to learn of the crime. Many times, the public isn’t even aware the crime took place. Murder victims often have friends or family, but even if they do not, our law dictates that murder is an offense against the public good and should be punished even if there’s no one alive personally injured by the death. It’s the job of the District Attorney to convince a jury even in the absence of a victim to take the stand, and frankly, that’s getting easier and easier to do with the development of modern forensics.
The point is this: criminal law isn’t about exacting personal vengeance. It’s about maintaining public safety. For the purposes of reporting crime, it doesn’t matter that the victim doesn’t want to pursue prosecution. It doesn’t matter if there’s a solid case or not. If a rape took place then a rape took place, and that must be investigated and reported in the interests of public safety. It might not make the police department or the prosecutor look good to have all those unpunished crimes in their jurisdiction, but hey, if you want your jurisdiction to look safe you should do more to actually prevent rape and prosecute it when it happens, not cover up the crimes that are taking place.
It’s interesting to me that just after this Metro story broke – and critics of Serpas started laying blame at his feet for pursuing traffic stops instead of cleaning up the underreporting of sex crimes – a New Orleans paper runs a story indicating that Serpas is working with their District Attorney to direct the focus away from traffic stops in order to have more resources for finding violent criminals. He also fired their sex crimes division commander for underreporting sex crimes. I have a hard time believing that Serpas did these things in response to criticism back here in Nashville, but it’s also hard to ignore the symmetry of the two stories. So, if Serpas is willing to do those things in New Orleans now, why wasn’t he willing to do them when he was in Nashville?
The simple answer is that he was willing to do them here, but something else in our city prevented him. Perhaps he didn’t know about the problem, or if he did, perhaps he didn’t have the cooperation of the Metro District Attorney in addressing it? Perhaps the backlash against his efforts to shake up the existing MNPD structure left him with too little political capital to effect that kind of change? Blaming Serpas for a practice that went on before, during, and after his tenure here sounds remarkably like “passing the buck” to me. It’s a time-honored tradition within Metro to blame the guy who just left (and who therefore can’t be held accountable) for the mistakes of the organization, in order for those who are still here and in authority to avoid taking responsibility.
Placing blame is a useless exercise when it doesn’t result in actual change. As far as I know, no one in the MNPD has been fired for underreporting these crimes. No resources have been taken away from issuing traffic tickets and harassing petty vagrants in order to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sex crimes. The MNPD continues to insist they did everything right in investigating these crimes. I don’t believe it. Classifying crimes as a “matter of record” because they would be difficult to prosecute makes the police and the District Attorney look better superficially, but it doesn’t serve victims, and it ultimately doesn’t serve the peace and dignity of the State of Tennessee.
Police must investigate crimes regardless of their prosecutorial merit because that’s how you build a case in the first place. Many of the police officers I’ve known – some of them on the MNPD – have often explained to me how pursuing suspects relentlessly pays off because if they’ve committed one crime you can’t prosecute them for, they’ll commit another crime later on that will put them behind bars. One clue about this crime leads to another clue about that crime that leads to a case. It’s the karmic law of policing. The fact that officers are dropping investigations because a witness doesn’t want to take the stand tells me they’re not taking pursuit of these criminals seriously. When the police immediately drop a rape investigation because the victim is unwilling to testify that’s not protecting the public, that’s serving the District Attorney.
The MNPD might believe it’s their job to build prosecutable cases, and perhaps that’s what they’ve been told, but any police department worth its salary places protecting the public before prosecuting criminals. That means sympathetically listening to victims, investigating crimes, and hunting down the bad guys. The better they do this, the better their cases will be, but no one but the District Attorney expects them to be more concerned with building cases than with harassing criminals. There are minimum legal standards within which they must perform their work – not violating anyone’s Constitutional rights is important – but it’s not their job to decide if a victim will be a good witness or if they have enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.
Yes, rape is difficult to prosecute. It shouldn’t be as difficult as it is, but as it stands it’s nearly impossible to convict without the testimony of a victim. That’s no good reason to stop investigating a crime, though, and we should be taking a good hard look at how victims are treated and their cases are handled when apparently so many of them don’t want to pursue justice so early on in the investigation. It’s hard enough on rape victims to face the challenges of our criminal justice system without the police and the prosecutors abandoning their cases at the first opportunity. These victims have already had to fight an attacker once, if not physically during the attack, psychologically for perhaps the rest of their lives. If they take the stand, they will have to fight him there again. They shouldn’t be expected to fight the system, too, but for as long as they must, the police and the prosecutors should be their strongest allies in that fight.
2011-01-24 » admin