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After the Assault: A Question Of Evidence (Episode 3)

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After the Assault: A Question Of Evidence (Episode 3)

Picture of Samantha Caiola

This story is part of a larger project, After The Assault, which aims to change the conversation around sexual violence to better support survivors seeking healing and justice. USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fellow, Sammy Caiola, helps us understand survivor experiences in the immediate aftermath of sexual violence and during police investigations. 

Other stories in this series include:

Introduction: ‘Deeply Destroyed My Sense of Safety’: Sexual Assault Survivors Say Police Interactions Often A Second Trauma

A Guide For Reporting Sexual Assault In Sacramento County

Episode 1: Start By Believing

Episode 2: Your Brain On Rape

Episode 4: Case Closed

Episode 5: Living With Trauma

Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally

Episode 7: A Community Problem

Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
Monday, June 21, 2021

Survivors say the meticulous medical exam that some sexual assault survivors undergo can be taxing and retraumatizing. But the DNA samples collected become evidence that can make or break an investigation. There are ways to process those samples faster, which can reduce stress and frustration for survivors.


Sammy: This is CapRadio’s After The Assault, a podcast about sexual assault survivors and their paths to justice and healing. I’m your host, Sammy Caiola. Welcome to Episode 3, A Question of Evidence.

Before we start I need to give you a content warning: we’re going to talk about rape in this episode.

[theme music comes up]

Sammy: I usually report on health care, so I get things like medical bills and hospital regulations, but I had to learn a lot about the so-called justice system for this podcast.

And one of the things I learned is that evidence collection is a crucial element in sexual assault cases. There are TWO thresholds for evidence that have to be met: law enforcement agencies need to have probable cause to make an arrest. That means they have to have enough proof to think something probably happened and that a certain person probably did it.

If there’s enough evidence to take a case to the district attorney’s office, then the prosecutor has to use that evidence to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the crime occurred. And that’s a much higher bar.

But perhaps more than any other crime, when it comes to sexual assault, investigators and scholars say proof can be elusive

Cassia: Well, I think we have to admit that sexual assault cases are difficult cases to prosecute for a variety of reasons.

Michelle: You don’t have years to go back and collect evidence. That’s not something that you can recreate.

Beth: The sad truth is they're usually, if, if, the investigation gets closed, there probably was not enough physical evidence.

Sammy: One in five U.S. women is a victim of attempted or completed rape. Most survivors don’t report, and those who do, often go through a long and taxing investigative process that rarely ends with their perpetrator behind bars.

If you want to know more about why so many assault victims don’t go to the police, listen to Episode 1. To learn more about the way survivor memory affects an investigation, check out Episode 2.

In this podcast, you’re going to hear about the kinds of evidence that are needed to investigate and prove that a crime occurred. We’ll be talking about a process that includes a lot of complicated steps.

And evidence collection can take a lot out of survivors emotionally.

Penny: At that time, there was so much I was trying to deal with, trying to get through, you know, going to the police station, trying to get myself through the evidentiary exam, trying to, you know, come home and make dinner for my kid.

Jesa: He's like, well, you know, we're trying to build a house out of evidence. And like your emails are, you know, we need a foundation, though, and you really have to build walls of the house and you go on it like I get it. I know.

Dominique: I went to the hospital and got everything like tested, and got him to admit it via Snapchat message. I tried to reopen it and that’s when they said that there wasn’t enough evidence from the beginning.

Marianne: Data and evidence collection for my reporting became just that. It wasn’t about listening to a survivor tell their story, it wasn’t acknowledging a human being who had suffered a crime.

Sammy: I’ll take you through one survivor’s experience with evidence collection and the way it affected her investigation. We’ll also look at best practices that could help police solve more cases.

Stay with me as I walk you through it, so that if you or a loved one ever has to navigate the system, you’ll be prepared.

This is After The Assault Episode 3: A Question of Evidence.

[music fades]

Sammy: This episode is about the importance of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases.

Collecting DNA from a victim starts with an evidentiary exam — that’s a special medical exam used to collect samples from the survivor’s body, hair and clothes. Those samples then go into a rape kit.

The kit is a box, filled with envelopes, vials and instructions for the crime lab. It might contain clothing, samples of bodily fluid, hairs, fibers, stuff like that.

Then the kit gets processed, and the DNA gets entered into a database with the DNA of other suspects from other crimes.

These kits can make or break an investigation. But they’re difficult to collect. The exam can be really hard on the victim, and the samples don’t always get processed — there are at least 14 thousand untested rape kits in police departments and crime labs across California.

Ashley Cleland directs the Women and Gender Office at East Carolina University. She says the evidence collection process can have profound impacts on a survivor’s mental well-being.

Ashley: Getting a rape kit done is a very invasive procedure, and in my experience working with survivors, the vast majority of folks that report their sexual assault or go to the hospital to get a rape kit done, are not doing it for them. They’re doing it so that someone else won’t have to experience what they’ve experienced.

And so, when we don’t honor the sacrifice that they’ve made by doing that, it also creates this distrust of the legal system, it creates this distrust of the police as not being an avenue that promotes healing, but puts you through more trauma to then not get a result.

Sammy: But in Sacramento County they’re doing things differently — kits ARE being processed, and pretty quickly. This episode, we’ll talk about how health professionals, law enforcement and prosecutors can work together to make the evidence collection process a little more seamless.

[music fades up and out]

Sammy: Erin Price-Dickson was assaulted in 2018. At the beginning of this year, she decided to make a commitment to yoga, for her mental health.

She follows along with a YouTube video.

[Sound of instructional video]

Erin: OK, so what I like to do daily is yoga, and I’ve been doing yoga now for a while. I like to do Yoga With Adriene… and there it is.

Sammy: Her case was suspended after an investigation, because they didn’t have enough evidence to make an arrest. She says it’s easy to get frustrated about that, but the yoga helps.

Erin: Just to kind of calm my soul after the day I’ve had, and I think I just feel like it helps me, and that’s kind of what I’ve been gearing towards these days.

Sammy: Erin’s not alone.

And in the Sacramento County law enforcement agencies that we examined, few sexual assault cases end in arrests and an even smaller number of those lead to criminal charges being filed.

[music transition]

Sammy: Not getting justice can be frustrating for survivors and that can throw a wrench in the healing process.

Many of them are left wondering WHY their cases were dropped.

And one of the biggest reasons is a lack of evidence.

You’re about to hear forensic scientist Bill Green, and then Elk Grove Police Department Detective Nicole Monroe.

Bill: Well, the he-said-she-said thing, um, is a real problem in sexual assault because oftentimes there are no witnesses and you got two competing stories about what the events in question were. Um, and that's where forensic science comes in.

Nicole: If we don't have any other evidence other than the victim's statement, how are we going to be able to prove that this happened? I'm not saying that it didn't happen at all. But we have to look at it from the standpoint of it going to trial and being able to prove that it happened.

Sammy: What kinds of evidence a detective can gather for a case depends heavily on the circumstances of the assault.

An evidentiary exam can yield a lot of evidence or just a little. And getting a kit with enough DNA to identify a perpetrator is really, really important to the investigation and prosecution of a sexual assault case.

I asked Megan Wood at the Sacramento County District Attorney Crime Lab what makes a good sample.

Megan: So if, for instance, there's a medical report and the victim indicates that ejaculation happened on her back. That's a fantastic sample because that's not going to yield a lot of her DNA, such as a vaginal swab, has a lot of the victim's own DNA and it can also have the suspect DNA. But if you have ejaculation on a body surface, I know that that is a prime DNA sample and I'm going to choose that type of swab every single time

Sammy: So only certain types of samples are going to yield a high concentration of DNA. And on top of that, every hour that passes, the DNA in sperm, saliva, blood and discharge becomes harder to detect.

Most science supports doing an evidentiary exam only if the victim reports within five days of the incident.

Many survivors wait past the window. Maybe they don’t think to report right away, because they don’t immediately see what happened to them as a crime. They might be in shock immediately following an assault, or too depressed or fearful to make a phone call.

Beth Hassett runs WEAVE, it’s Sacramento’s rape crisis center. It’s often the first point of contact for assault survivors.

Beth: Please report as soon as you can. You know, every minute you don't report, we're losing evidence. And juries watch way too much Law & Order and CSI, and you know they want swimming sperm inside her in order to decide that there was actually an assault, and that's not usually the case.

Sammy: In addition to reporting an assault as soon as possible, there are some steps that a survivor can take to make it more likely that forensic examiners can collect strong evidence. Showering and bathing can wash away DNA evidence. So can washing the clothes or the bedding from the incident. So if someone can avoid doing those things until evidence has been documented, that can help.

But Hassett says even if a survivor does shower and does wash those items, they should still report and get an exam if it’s been five or fewer days since the assault.

Many survivors just don’t know what to do in the hours after an attack.

Erin Price-Dickson says she immediately took a shower after she was raped by an acquaintance, late at night, in his home.

Erin: So I got in and I tried to clean myself. Well, I cleaned myself but I didn't feel clean. And then I was just, I was just crying the whole time and I just sat down in the shower. So, I just was sitting in the shower, like, letting the water run on me. And I was crying and then like, I had to like, tell myself, like, “OK Erin.” And like, “get up. You need to get over to Aliyah’s house.” I was like, “get up, like, get up.” So I had to keep telling myself, “get up.” Um, I finally was like, OK, so I got myself up, you know, got myself dressed, and drove over to her house.

Sammy: After Erin slept and ate something, the friend insisted they call the police. It was morning by then. She says the officers didn’t arrive at her friend’s house until later that afternoon.

Here’s Erin’s description of her interaction with the police officer. She mentions a BEAR exam — BEAR is the name of the clinic where evidentiary exams take place for assaults in Sacramento County.

Erin: He asked me if I wanted to do the BEAR exam. And that's when I told him, like, yeah, I mean, I'll go and do that. I told him, you know, I did tell them I showered and they were like, oh, you know, um, we'll, we’ll see if they can get anything with that. But usually you don't want to shower. And I was like, well, I didn't, I mean, I didn't know that. And he was like, you know, it's OK. We'll still see what they can get, or whatever.

Sammy: Patrol officers are trained to offer an exam to collect evidence of a sexual assault if the attack happened within that five-day window. They’re also supposed to tell the victim that they can have someone come along to the clinic, like a friend or an advocate from WEAVE, the rape crisis center.

In Erin’s case, she says officers followed all the steps. There was a WEAVE advocate present during her exam. But she said it was still a little overwhelming.

Erin: So he said, “We need to get your clothes from your house.” Um, he was like, I can either, I can, you know, you can meet me at the, um, at the place, or, you can, um, drive yourself. And so, I didn't feel like I wanted to drive myself. So I told him, like, I can drive my car home and then they can, so they were going to follow me home. I'll get my… the stuff you need. So, I had to get my pants and my panties and the shirt and the bra that I was wearing.

Sammy: So, you can imagine that this might be a lot for a survivor to think about. They’ve just experienced a violent incident and they’re probably in shock, and now there’s all these steps that they have to follow.

Location is important here. Exams can only be conducted at special clinics staffed by highly trained examiner teams. I checked with the Association of California Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, and there are just 48 teams trained to do this for California’s 58 counties.

Larger counties can have two exam centers, but some counties don’t even have their own. For example, the BEAR clinic in Sacramento also handles all the exams for neighboring Yolo County.

So if you have to take an exam, you’ll likely be taken to another facility where exams are held.

An exam typically lasts about two hours. It’s conducted by a sexual assault nurse examiner or a sexual assault forensic examiner. These are people who undergo a ton of training to be able to do this.

Angie Vickers oversees the BEAR clinic, which is where these exams take place in Sacramento. She says they do about 400 exams a year.

It starts with taking a medical history, and getting the basics of the incident.

Angie: And the next part will be going through the whole medical exam which is very meticulous, looking over the whole body to see if there’s any injuries, photographing any injuries, using the blue light which helps identify secretions on the body. And then the last part of the exam would be doing the pelvic exam, which most of the women who come in for an evidence exam have had a pelvic exam done before, but recognizing that once you’ve been assaulted and just having it just have happened, this pelvic exam may be much more difficult to go through.

Sammy: Erin was one of eight survivors that CapRadio worked with to help shape this project. We call them the survivor cohort. Here’s Erin telling them about her experience:

Erin: It made me, like, very uncomfortable. First of all, the BEAR exam is just very uncomfortable in general. Like, off top. It’s right after your assault, and then they’re opening you up and they’re swabbing you. I did have a WEAVE advocate there. So I… that’s what helped me feel a little bit more comfortable with what was going on, because I did have a WEAVE advocate there, um, when I got there.

Sammy: Erin does remember something specific that bothered her. She’s African American, and she says the nurse who examined her had trouble identifying her injuries.

Erin: First, she took the photos because I was trying to explain to her... because I could tell, like where I had bruising, but I don't necessarily show bruising like that. So, like, I could just, you know, if you touch it, you're like, oh, that kind of hurts and you know it's a bruise. But mine didn't show like the discoloration necessarily yet. There were some parts that did. So I was trying to show her on my arm. So she was like, oh, and she was like “I'll take a picture anyway.” And then on my legs, I was trying to show her some bruising. There was some that did end up showing so she took those pictures.

[music comes up]

Sammy: Research shows this sometimes happens for survivors of color getting exams. A University of Pennsylvania study of 120 survivors found that forensic nurse examiners weren’t able to detect injuries in women with dark skin as easily as women with light skin.

When this happens, it means less evidence is logged in a Black or brown survivor’s kit, and that lessens the chances that their case moves through the system.

[music transition]

[theme music]

Sammy: There’s also another problem with these kits. In cases where the suspect says it was consensual sex and the victim says it was rape, there’s not a good way to tell the difference.

Forensic scientist Bill Green says the exam can find these little ‘micro traumas’ — these are tiny lacerations and injuries inside the body — but they don’t prove force.

Bill: It turns out that if you look at consensual couples, where there was clearly consensual sexual activity, there’s microtrauma there, too. So, the whole issue about finding microtrauma and what it means, initially was very inappropriately interpreted because there was no scientific basis for those decisions.

Sammy: Still, collecting the DNA from the alleged perpetrator can be crucial. Even if one victim already knows who raped her, getting their samples into CODIS — that’s the national database of suspect DNA — could bring them up as a hit on cases where a suspect was previously unidentified.

Bill: We got his DNA. But then his DNA goes into the data bank and the data bank says whaddya know? There’s 12 other crimes that this guy is connected to where he was an unknown assailant. So suddenly a whole cascade of solved crimes occurs because we analyzed the DNA in a case with a known assailant.

Sammy: That’s one reason why some advocates say the backlog of rape kits in California, and across the nation, is such a big deal.

After the exam, the rape kit is supposed to be immediately taken to the crime lab. As of January 2020, California law requires that the kit be sent to the lab within 20 days, and analyzed at the lab within four months.

But before we had that law, kits could remain untested for years or they might never get tested at all. Nationally there are thousands of unprocessed rape kits. They’re either sitting on the shelves at police departments because they never get sent to the crime lab, or they’re sitting on the shelves at crime labs.

Experts we talked to say there are two main reasons for that: either law enforcement or prosecutors choose not to run the kits because they don’t consider it crucial to the case, or it’s a funding issue. Some agencies say they just can’t afford to process everything.

A 2020 report from the California Department of Justice found that there are roughly 14,000 rape kits across California still waiting to be tested — but that is likely an undercount because only 149 of the state’s more than 500 law enforcement agencies even responded to that audit.

Advocacy groups have been speaking up about this for years. The stories of survivors who have waited decades for their results have been widely publicized.

Sacramento County is actually an exception — there are very few untested kits here.

CapRadio’s data reporter Emily Zentner did some digging on this. Hey Emily. How’s it going?

Emily: Hey Sammy.

Sammy: So what did you find out?

Emily: So the big takeaway here is that from 2014 on, Sacramento County has been making a point to process almost all of the rape kits that come into its the crime lab. And I honestly was pretty surprised by this because I feel like I hear all the time about this massive rape kit backlog, and that’s something that comes up in popular culture all the time. I’m hearing news about it all the time that, you know, rape kits aren’t getting tested. And in Sacramento County in recent years, that’s just not what’s going on.

Sammy: And what do you mean when you say that Sacramento County has processed almost all of the kits?

Emily: In 2014 through 2019, it’s really just a handful of kits each year that aren’t getting processed. And we don’t want to minimize anyone who had a kit done that year and their kit didn’t get tested, because we understand that can get upsetting. But we’re looking at between 1 and 6 percent of cases each year where the rape kit isn’t getting tested. So that’s really a significant majority of rape kits that are being tested in Sacramento County in recent years.

And in 2020, the county district attorney’s crime lab actually processed every single one of the about 250 rape kits it received.

Sammy: Wow. That’s a big deal. But wait, what about all the kits that were submitted before 2014?

Emily: This has kind of been a story of various grants and processes that have changed things over the years. So the county had a previous grant that ended in the early 2000s, and they weren’t able to process all of their kits anymore after that grant ended.

In the past six years they’ve processed between 94 and 100 percent of the kits they’ve received. So that’s the majority of rape kits that are getting tested. But for the 14 years before that, it’s more in the 60, 70, 80 percent range. There was an exception to that though, which is that in 2004, the county processed less than a quarter of the kits received, and they processed less than half of those received in 2005.

Sammy: So those were a couple of bad years. And were these kits processed when they were received, or has this all been part of that new commitment to go back and test all the kits?

Emily: That we don’t know. We don’t know how many of these older kits were processed when they were received, or how many have been processed since 2014. But a part of that commitment to test all kits in recent years has been going back to previous years and looking for kits that need to be tested.

Sammy: And what’s like the total number of untested kits we’re talking about from the last 20 years?

Emily: Over 1,500 kits received in the past 20 years still have not been tested. The vast majority of those are from before that new commitment in 2014, and only about 50 kits from the past six years are still untested. And it’s also worth noting that while those 1,500-plus kits haven’t been tested, the county has processed three quarters of the kits it’s gotten in the past two decades. But each one of those untested kits still represents a person who went through that forensic exam and whose evidence was ultimately not processed.

Sammy: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine not getting an answer back on this kind of thing. Do you know why those kits weren’t processed?

Emily: One thing to note is that those 1,500 or so kits are not a backlog. And that’s because the DA doesn’t plan on testing those kits. They told me that the information they could get is unnecessary.

That means that those kits aren’t waiting for testing, they’re kits the DA decided not to test for a variety of reasons, and that includes cases where the victim recanted, cases where the defendant had already been sentenced, where the case was closed or where the kit was from outside the county.

Sammy: OK, so say you’re a survivor and you get a rape kit done. How long can you expect the county will take to process your kit?

Emily: State law gives crime labs 120 days or about four months to process these rape kits and deliver a report. And Sacramento County’s average turnaround times have been a lot faster than that. In 2018 their average turnaround time was 76 days or about two and a half months. And in 2019, it was 59 days or about two months. That could be still a long time for someone waiting for the results of this exam that can be traumatizing for people, but it is a lot faster than the state’s deadline. And Sacramento County is definitely on top of it with beating that deadline that the state’s given them.

[music comes up]

Sammy: Emily, thank you so much for breaking all of that down.

Emily: Thanks, Sammy! I’m really glad that all of our time and digging and the many, many emails we’ve sent have paid off and that we were able to report about the fate of these rape kits over the past two decades.

[music fades out]

Sammy: Sacramento County is doing something to make the testing process faster: they’re gathering a whole bunch of DNA samples from the victim, but then they’re only TESTING the samples that criminologists identify as the most likely to come back with a hit.

So for example, if a victim says that the perpetrator licked her neck and that he ejaculated inside of her, the lab might only process the vaginal swab and the swab from her neck.

Lots of counties are trying to streamline their kit processing. There are 39 counties using a system called RADS — it stands for Rapid DNA Service. It’s like what Sacramento does, except the nurse doing the exam picks the three best samples, instead of the people at the crime lab doing that.

[music comes up]

Bill: If we had every exam that was done in California, part of a RADS-type program, where certain swabs that were potentially the highest yield were fast-tracked, analyzed and put through the databases, that would essentially make this test every kit issue moot because we'd really have the data that we really need. It is a real success story in forensic science.

[music fades]

Sammy: A 2017 California Department of Justice study found that since that system was introduced in 2011, 98% of the cases processed that way were completed within 30 days. And during that period, almost 2,000 cases were completed. That resulted in 684 CODIS profiles going into that national database and almost 300 CODIS hits.

So faster processing means more perpetrators get identified. And it’s also cheaper to not process the whole kit.

And unfortunately, advocates say funding is a big part of whether or not a kit gets processed, and whether or not a victim even gets an exam at all.

I should explain something here: there are two types of evidentiary exams. One is an exam that’s approved by law enforcement because they feel there’s enough evidence to warrant an investigation. Then there’s the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA exam. That’s for people who aren’t sure if they want to work with law enforcement but they do want to have their evidence documented. The VAWA is also for cases where law enforcement doesn’t approve the exam.

Five out of the eight survivors that we worked with on this podcast reported to law enforcement. One of them told us that she had to ask the patrol officer who took her report for information about where to get an exam.

Here’s Beth Hassett from WEAVE about that:

Beth: Again, they’re supposed to be saying, well, you have the right to an exam even if I don’t authorize it, you can go in and get a VAWA exam. In a perfect world, they'd be paid for through some other fund.

Bill: In some ways law enforcement are the gatekeepers.

Sammy: That’s Bill Green again. He says if a victim doesn’t know to ask for an exam and the law enforcement agency decides they don’t need one, evidence just might not be documented.

Bill’s going to refer to a “923” exam here. That’s the name of the form that’s used during the exam that gets approved by law enforcement.

Bill: Our trust has always been with law enforcement, is to lower the bar. You know, you don't know what happened. We don't know what happened based on first disclosures and first statements. Don't try and predict what happened based on the first encounter. If there is any, any, suspicion that it happened the way it was presented, then do the investigation. And that investigation includes a full-on 923 forensic exam.

Sammy: Detectives and sargents told us that their protocol is to always inform a victim that they can have an exam, whether they’re going to participate in the investigation or not.

Dave Thomas is with the International Association of Chiefs of Police — they write best practice guides for law enforcement handling sexual assault cases.

He says unfortunately, victims sometimes need to advocate for an exam themselves.

Dave: When law enforcement isn’t affording victims these rights, they are going to be more, they’re going to be subject to losing other types of funding to their agencies. So they’re going to do themselves more of a disservice by not going ahead and doing what they should be doing under the law.

The problem a lot of times is that when somebody isn't afforded the services, they don't necessarily know who to call and talk to in order to get their rights upheld, and so it kind of like slips under the rug.

Sammy: Advocacy groups say they’re working with the state to try to make sure law enforcement officers are offering an exam every time, regardless of whether the survivor ultimately decides to move forward with the investigation.

They also introduced a new bill that would create an online portal where survivors can track the status of their kits and find out whether evidence has been processed or not.

Erin Price-Dickson says examiners told her that the rape kit didn’t yield any evidence. And it pissed her off, because according to what she said on her police report, she was penetrated at least 30 times.

Erin: It should’ve showed something because they actually swab inside of you. So I was very frustrated by the fact that they were like “oh there’s nothing, it doesn’t even show that you’ve even had sex,” you know, so I, I don’t know.

Sammy: And Erin says she didn’t even know the status of her case until she requested her investigative file for this project.

Which gets to a critique that I’ve heard from some experts make about the push to end the rape kit backlog.

Joanne Archambault with End Violence Against Women International says it is a good thing to test the kits, but it doesn’t solve thsi bigger issue with sexual assault cases.

Joanne: They're doing this mass testing, but you really have to be careful to fund the investigators, right. And so if you're, you're going back and you're testing all these cases, without having investigators and prosecutors actually looking at those cases and doing something with those cases, I think it's a false promise.

Sammy: Erin says as far as she knows, detectives never went to the scene of the assault. We looked at her investigative file. It didn’t indicate that they’d talked to the suspect, or that they’d collected any evidence from his house.

Erin: I was hoping, like they would go over there right away and collect everything, because I'm sure, like, there's blood on the, the bed, like so I just for reasons why they didn't. But they got like my clothes and stuff, but they couldn't go over to his house and get anything. I don't know. And he was saying like they had to wait until it was... my case was picked up by the detective. But I'm like thinking, you know, by that time, he could get rid of, get rid of all of that.

Sammy: And that’s a prime example of the point that Archambaldt was making: rape kits just don’t tell the whole story.

Joanne: It bothers me because I think in some jurisdictions where they’re doing the simplest approach, victims were being told that there's no evidence, and they've never even looked at the clothing, or the bedding, or the condoms, or the totality of the investigation. So again, it's a good first step, but it's not the end step.

[music comes up]

Sammy: Erin’s case was suspended after a completed investigation. That means there wasn’t enough evidence to make an arrest.

She spent months going back and forth with her detective, trying to find answers. But at some point, she says she had to move on for her own healing.

Erin: It just wasn’t helping. She wasn’t doing anything with my case. Well that’s how I felt, because again, you know, I don’t know the behind the scenes. She may have a whole separate story, but she can say like “oh yeah I worked really hard on it,” I don’t know.

But from, from, my side of things, nothing was being done, and because it was constantly putting me in that space, for myself, I had to make that decision, like, I, I'm not going to reach, continue to be the one to reach out to her because of how it's making me feel. And I'm trying to just get myself to a better space.

[music fades up]

Sammy: A lot of survivors feel this way after participating in an investigation. The process of collecting evidence is invasive. And it doesn’t always result in action. What’s left is for survivors to find a way to heal in the absence of justice.

Still, advocates say the more people who report their crimes and get evidentiary exams, the more likely it is that perpetrators of sexual violence will be caught in the future.

You can learn more about reporting a sexual assault in Sacramento County and how to support survivors on their healing journeys at

[music fades]

[theme music comes up]

Sammy: Next episode, we’ll look at why so few cases make it to court:

Cassia: Detectives were simply giving up and, uh, not doing a thorough investigation, taking a thin case file to the prosecutor. And the prosecutor would say, well, based on what you've got so far, you know, we don't think we could get a conviction. We wouldn't file charges. Well, that's like clearing cases with an eraser.

[theme music fades]

Marci: My name is Marci Bridgeford, and I am the director of community response at WEAVE — Sacramento County’s rape crisis center. We support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assualt and sex trafficking.

We have a 24-hour, seven day a week support and information line. You can call it anytime at 916-920-2952. You may also reach out to us via our message boards or chat features on our website at

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Sammy: After The Assault is a production of CapRadio in Sacramento, California.

Emily Zentner is our data reporter.

Nicole Nixon contributed reporting to this episode.

Catherine Stifter is our podcast editor.

Sally Schilling designed the sound.

Mark Jones is our audio engineer.

jesikah maria ross directed the project in collaboration with Nick Miller, CapRadio’s Managing News Editor.

Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.

Music is by Jay Urban. Audio chords from Pond5, Empyreal Glow and Anchor.

We want to hear from you. Go to to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit

We’d like to thank Annie, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Maddie, Monica, Laura and Penny for helping us shape this project.

Thanks also to Sacramento’s Sexual Assault Response Team and area advocacy groups for their ongoing consultation and participation.

After The Assault was produced with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.

I’m Sammy Caiola. Thanks for listening to After The Assault.

[This story was originally published by CapRadio.]

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