NC Attorney General Josh Stein. Seeking Conviction- Justice elusive for NC sexual assault survivors
In 38 counties across North Carolina, zero defendants who were charged with sexual assault between Jan. 1, 2014, and June 30, 2018, were convicted of that charge or a reduced charge during that time window, according to analysis of statewide court data by Carolina Public Press.
While the average rate of convictions statewide was nearly one in four, many counties and prosecutorial districts had rates well below that level. On the other hand, several jurisdictions posted much higher conviction rates.
For the purposes of this analysis, CPP evaluated counties with conviction rates at least 8 percentage points above the statewide average as “high,” and those with rates at least 8 percentage points below the statewide average as “low.”
Jurisdictions that did not have at least four defendants were deemed to have insufficient data to evaluate.
This begs the question: Why the sweeping differences from one location to another?
This is the second in a four-day investigative series, Seeking Conviction, examining the issue of sexual assault prosecution and convictions in North Carolina, from a team of 11 media partners across the state including Carolina Public Press, The Fayetteville Observer; The (Durham) Herald-Sun, the Hickory Daily Record, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, the (Greensboro) News & Record, North Carolina Health News, the Winston-Salem Journal, WLOS News 13, WRAL-TV and WUNC North Carolina Public Radio.
Looking more closely at the numbers, complicated stories about locations across the state emerged.
Based on this analysis, this collaborative team of journalists began conversations with rape survivors, prosecutors, rape crisis center officials, medical professionals, law enforcement and others about what was happening — good, bad or simply complicated — across North Carolina.
Low conviction rates
Home to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, Cumberland County is just southeast of the state’s geographical center. Cumberland County had one of the highest levels of sexual assault arrests in the state, with 102 sexual assault defendants in the analysis, plus an additional 61 cases that remained open.
However, the county’s conviction rate was well below the state average, with one jury conviction and 15 pleas to sexual assault charges, not to some reduced charge. The county also had one jury acquittal in a sexual assault case and 85 cases in which the charges were dropped.
District Attorney Billy West questioned some aspects of Carolina Public Press’ method of analysis, including the types of charges and plea agreements that were included.
West said Cumberland does pose some unique challenges.
The young culture and transient nature of the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community influences the outcomes of cases, West said.
For example, if a sex offense victim has moved away or been sent overseas by the military, West said, he or she may prefer to have the case resolved with a plea bargain instead of coming back to testify at a trial.
Even if they haven’t left town, West said, victims often prefer a plea bargain because they otherwise would have to go to court and testify.
He said his staff consults closely with victims when deciding whether to agree to a guilty plea to lesser or reduced charges.
The Fayetteville Police Department is aggressive in pursuing sexual assault cases, West said. But that doesn’t mean that every defendant will be convicted, he said, as the evidence standard to levy a charge is lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard required to obtain a conviction.
Located near the state’s center, Harnett is a rural county between metropolitan Wake and Cumberland. According to Carolina Public Press’ analysis, Harnett had no sexual assault convictions that began and ended during the 4 ½-year window analyzed. Thirteen cases were closed by dismissal. Seven cases remain open.
Harnett shares a prosecutorial district with Lee County, which also had no convictions. Lee had nine dismissals and five open cases.
According to Carolina Public Press’ analysis, the prosecutorial district made up of Harnett and Lee counties is the only district in the state without any convictions during the 4 ½-year period included in the analysis.
Harnett County Assistant District Attorney Don Harrop questioned whether the analysis was fair. Carolina Public Press did not count cases as convictions for sexual assault when a rape charge was dropped as part of a plea deal for some other charge. Harrop identified several such cases in Harnett.
For instance, Danny Autry was charged with second-degree forcible sex offense and assault on a female. He pleaded guilty to attempted possession of a firearm by a felon from another case and assault on a female in exchange for the sexual assault charge being dropped.
Harrop argued that not counting such cases as convictions misrepresents what’s happening in Harnett.
“I don’t think that does anybody any justice,” he said.
He also noted that Harnett lacks the resources of some larger counties.
“As to whether we have special investigators and teams, this office is really not big enough to do that,” he said.
A couple of Harnett County Sheriff’s Office detectives do the bulk of the sexual assault investigations, but the DA’s office also works with other municipalities that might not have specialized staff, he said.
For the purpose of this analysis, Carolina Public Press applied the same methodology for every county and prosecutorial district, as well as to statewide numbers.
Along the state’s northern border, Person County had just one conviction, by a plea to a reduced charge, out of eight sexual assault defendants. It also had two cases that remained open, as of June 30, 2018.
Rural counties like Person can pose difficulties for prosecuting sexual assaults, according to Annette Hampton, executive director of Safe Haven, a rape crisis center in Roxboro.
“One of the main things for our county is having the victim come forward and go through the process all the way from the beginning to the end,” she said. “Once a victim is sexually assaulted, one of their biggest fears is going to court.”
Victims in rural counties feel that they need to stay silent for fear of ruining a family’s name, she said.
One defendant accepted a sexual assault plea, out of 15 people charged in Onslow County, which is located on the state’s central east coast. However, prosecutors did take two other cases to jury trials, neither of which resulted in guilty verdicts.
Onslow County has both a low conviction rate and an overall low rate of arrests for sexual assaults, considering the nearly 200,000 people who live there, according to state estimates.
Nora Vargas is the sexual assault advocate for the Onslow Women’s Center, a rape crisis center in Jacksonville.
She has noticed that sexual violence in Onslow tends to spike in the warmer months when there is more partying.
A high portion of Onslow sexual assault cases, 95 percent, involve questions of consent in which the survivors knew their perpetrator, Vargas said, adding that might even be a conservative estimate.
“And you start blaming yourself: Had I not worn that; or had I not been out so late; or had I not taken that drug or that drink,” Vargas said. “And you start taking that responsibility and accountability away from the perpetrator.”
When Vargas sees self-blame, she tries to reassure victims.
“Are you going to sit there and tell me that if you wore sweatpants and an oversize hoodie, it was going to change his behavior?” she asks. “No, it’s not.”
Located along the South Carolina line between Charlotte and Fayetteville, Anson County had no sexual assault convictions on seven defendants, with an additional five cases remaining open.
Prosecutors in Anson County declined to be interviewed.
But Karen Baucom of the Anson County Domestic Violence Center discussed her observations there about whether law enforcement and prosecutors will pursue a case that doesn’t immediately seem like a clear win.
“(If it’s) his word against her word, most likely (police and prosecutors) are going to say there’s not enough evidence,” she said, and an investigation never takes place.
Wadesboro Police Chief Thedis Spencer said one issue with prosecutions is that victims in Anson often decide not to testify or drop out during a prolonged process.
“The victims do get frustrated, because it’s continuing the cases,” he said. “And then the ADAs start (asking), ‘Is this person going to be reliable, is this person’s background?’ … I don’t agree with that. I agree with taking it to court and processing it. That determination should be up to a jury. That’s me.”
Located directly north of Charlotte, Iredell County had no sexual assault convictions on eight defendants, plus seven open cases. Iredell shares a prosecutorial district with Alexander County, just to its northwest, which had one conviction on six charges.
District Attorney Sarah Kirkman, who represents Iredell and Alexander counties, said the statistics don’t give a full picture because they only cover certain crimes and leave out others. She specifically identified indecent liberties and crimes against nature, both lower-level felonies, and sexual battery, a misdemeanor, as crimes she thought should have been included.
Assistant District Attorney Crystal Beale partially blamed delays in reporting sexual assaults for the lack of convictions in Iredell.
“They are often reported outside of the 48- to 72-hour window in which DNA evidence could be found during a sexual assault exam,” Beale said. “Although, more often than not, sexual assault is a crime that leaves no physical evidence.”
Located in the mountains southwest of Asheville, Haywood County had one sexual assault conviction from a jury trial out of nine sexual assault defendants.
District Attorney Ashley Welch described the lone conviction, however, as an important one, in which a serial rapist preying on residents at a dementia ward was brought to justice.
Haywood County Sheriff’s Sgt. Heath Justice suggested a wide range of issues sometimes interferes with successful prosecution.
“Every single case we get may be different than the next,” he said. “We start statements through witness statements, victim statements, and that can be different if the victim is wanting to talk right then. That’s one thing we don’t do is force and start asking questions. It’s when the victim is comfortable talking (that) we sit down and … start the investigation.”
Lynn Carlson is a regional program director and therapist with the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance, which is based in Waynesville.
She hopes that working with survivors can improve outcomes for the region, which has generally low conviction rates in sexual assault cases. One of the innovative methods is providing therapy dogs to sexual assault survivors.
“As every survivor has their own individual story, each case is unique. But trauma typically impacts an individual’s ability to develop in a healthy manner and disrupts their worldview of self and others.”
Carlson expressed concern that many residents in the region’s rural communities were reluctant to seek help of any kind.
“Often victims in rural communities are fearful of being known or seen by others due to stigma of mental health services, access to evidence-based services, insurance/financial concerns, lack of family support and transportation issues,” she said.
McDowell and Rutherford counties
McDowell and Rutherford counties share Prosecutorial District 29A. Although they each had relatively few defendants, the overall district had seven, with the lone conviction coming on a reduced-charge plea deal in Rutherford.
District Attorney Ted Bell serves these counties. He acknowledged that many issues make successful prosecution challenging at times, including additional investigative work that occurs after an initial arrest.
“Sometimes the evidence that comes in through this more detailed investigation might not necessarily show that the victim wasn’t being truthful,” he said. “But it might make it very, very difficult to proceed on the initial charge.”
That leaves a prosecutor with a tough choice.
“Do you still want to roll the dice and take this to trial, and we give this about a 40 percent chance of success?” Bell said. “Or do you want to see if we can plead it out and still hold the defendant responsible for what they did.”
High conviction rates
The statewide data analysis also identified several counties with higher rates of conviction for sexual assault. Public officials discussed factors they credit for this success.
Of the state’s 100 counties, the data analysis evaluated 19 as having high rates of prosecution. This included a number of large counties, such as Forsyth and Wake, which are discussed here. But it also includes many smaller counties that would appear to have fewer resources, such as Sampson, Vance and Stanly counties.
Between Jan. 1, 2014, and June 30, 2018, Forsyth County convicted 62 percent of defendants charged with sexual assault crimes involving threats, force or intimidation, including rape. It’s one of the highest conviction rates in the state.
But only eight people were charged with those offenses during the 4 ½ years, according to CPP’s analysis.
Out of the 11 counties in North Carolina with more than 200,000 residents, Forsyth was the only one where the number of people charged with sexual assault was in the single digits.
Next door, Guilford County charged 40 people. Of those, 20 percent were convicted.
Assistant District Attorney Elisabeth Dresel is one of two Forsyth County prosecutors who specialize in adult sexual assault cases. She said one reason Forsyth County charges fewer people than in other densely populated counties could be because prosecutors always consult with law enforcement officers before charges for serious felonies are filed.
Without enough evidence, a sexual assault case in Forsyth County is unlikely to proceed to trial, Dresel said.
“We talk to them about what it takes to win, and what it takes to win is more than just probable cause,” Dresel said. “We want to make sure we’re not charging stuff that we don’t have a chance to win.”
The most important thing is supporting the person who has been sexually assaulted, and that includes making sure the case is as strong for prosecution as possible, she said.
Home to the state capital, Wake County is the second-most populous county. It’s also among the highest in obtaining sexual assault convictions. Wake County had 77 defendants included in the analysis, with 24 convicted of sexual assault charges, plus three who pleaded to a reduced charge.
Four of Wake County’s convictions came from jury verdicts, a tie with Mecklenburg for the highest number during the period of the analysis.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she believes Wake is successful at prosecuting these cases because it is in a “well-resourced district,” compared to some other areas in the state.
The volume of cases in Wake allows local law enforcement and the DA’s office to have specialized teams with investigators and prosecutors who have had training and experience working with sexual assault victims.
Wake County is also one of the only counties in the state that has a center where victims can get the initial sexual assault forensic examination.
Instead of victims having to deal with an emergency room nurse, they can go to InterAct’s Solace Center in Raleigh to see a sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE nurse, who is trained in recognizing and collecting sexual assault evidence, a process that can take four to five hours, but sometimes as much as eight hours. In addition to a nurse, an advocate also attends and helps walk victims through the process.
“Inasmuch as people go there, it helps any prosecution because they are immediately seen by people who understand the nature of sexual assault, know how to handle victims and interact with them,” Freeman said. They also ask victims appropriate questions to get a sense of what happened and where bruises or other evidence might be, she added.
Three of the 43 prosecutors in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office make up the special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, child abuse and felony domestic violence.
“They are aggressive, serious prosecutors about these issues,” Freeman said of the three-woman team led by a 20-year veteran prosecutor.
In addition, each of these prosecutors has her own victim/witness coordinator, who keeps witnesses informed and sits with victims in court.
“They are responsible for helping the victim through the judicial process,” she said.
Some advantages in Wake County go beyond the efforts of public officials. The county has immediate access to universities and Research Triangle Park, which affects the jury pool. Juries often include someone with a scientific or technology background.
“Often that helps in these kinds of cases,” Freeman said, “if they can understand the evidence that is being presented to them and help break it down for other jurors when they get back in the jury deliberation rooms.”
Contributors to this article included Kate Martin, Frank Taylor, Imari Scarbrough and Rebecca Andrews of Carolina Public Press; Paul Woolverton of The Fayetteville Observer; Virginia Bridges of The (Durham) Herald-Sun; Kevin Griffin of the Hickory Daily Record; Jason deBruyn of WUNC North Carolina Public Radio; Sarah Newell and Michael Hewlitt of the Winston-Salem Journal; and Jennifer Emert of WLOS News 13.
Illustration by Mariano Santillan of Carolina Public Press. Graphics by Cassandra Sherrill of the Winston-Salem Journal and Jason deBruyn of WUNC North Carolina Public Radio.
About the collaboration: Eleven news organizations across North Carolina participated in the reporting of this series, which was coordinated by Carolina Public Press. Those organizations also include: The Fayetteville Observer; The (Durham) Herald-Sun, the Hickory Daily Record, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, the (Greensboro) News & Record, North Carolina Health News, the Winston-Salem Journal, WLOS News 13, WRAL-TV and WUNC North Carolina Public Radio. To find all the reporting done in this project, visit www.carolinapublicpress.org.
Coming tomorrow: Evidence can make or break sexual assault prosecutions.