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After the Assault: Case Closed (Episode 4)

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After the Assault: Case Closed (Episode 4)

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 3: A Question Of Evidence

Episode 5: Living With Trauma

Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally

Episode 7: A Community Problem

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

Many survivors who decide to report their rapes don’t necessarily get justice. They must navigate the complicated maze that is the investigation process for sexual assaults. Law enforcement representatives say these cases are hard to solve and harder to prosecute, and that there are ways to change the system to better support survivors.

Transcript

Sammy: This is CapRadio’s After The Assault, a podcast about sexual assault survivors and their journeys to justice and healing. I’m your host, Sammy Caiola. Welcome to Episode 4, Case Closed.

Before we start, I need to give you a content warning: this episode contains references to sexual violence and descriptions of interactions with law enforcement.

[theme music comes up]

Sammy: Many sexual assault survivors who report to the police go into the process with this idea of what ‘justice’ could mean. They might be thinking about crime investigations that they’ve seen on TV, or maybe they picture themselves going to court and their perpetrators being sentenced.

But national and local data show that this is rarely the case. Sexual assault cases are hard to solve and harder to prosecute. Many survivors who decide to report don’t necessarily get ‘justice.’

Penny: Healing with legal action is fraught because you're dependent on other people and other people can fail you.

Jesa: To keep my sanity, which didn't always happen, I had to let go of the outcome. I had to just remember all the things I had in my head about how this never, you know these never work out anyway, I don’t expect very much.

Annie: Just feeling like like there are these departments or things set up to assist you and help you. And then the fact that they're not able to or they don't at least communicate with you just puts the victim in even a worst mental state of feeling like, just hopeless and helpless.

Sammy: This episode, we’re giving you the ins and outs of the system — explaining all of the steps, and why most cases don’t make it to the finish line.

We’ll also explore what law enforcement and community groups can do to better support assault survivors and how they can ensure that healing happens even when justice doesn’t.

In previous episodes, we talked about why so many people don’t report this crime. We also discussed how trauma affects a survivor’s ability to recall the details of the attack, and the challenges with collecting evidence on these cases. If you missed any of that, I’d suggest going back to listen to the first three episodes.

CapRadio created this podcast with help from eight sexual assault survivors. Together they make up what we call the survivor cohort. We made a decision early on to believe what they told us, and investigate it through expert interviews and data analysis.

[theme music comes up]

Sammy: Not everybody in the cohort reported their assaults — lots of survivors never do. And that’s OK. It’s always a survivor’s choice to report or not.

But in this episode we’re focusing on those who did and what it took for them to get through the complicated maze that is the investigative process for sexual assaults.

This is After The Assault Episode 4: Case Closed.

[music fades]

Sammy: I met Jesa David at her house.

[sound of door opening and dogs barking] “Hey!” “Hey, oh I hear some barking.”

Sammy: She lives alone in a one-story on a quiet street. She’s got two cats and a dog and her front porch is decked out with plants.

Sammy: It’s so nice out there!

Jesa: I have a bird out there, too. Did you see her?

Sammy: No, I didn't.

Jesa: There’s another cat who might freak out but she’s the one who will be all over you.

Sammy: What’s her name? [cat meows]

Jesa: Dottie.

Sammy: More than five years after the night she says she was assaulted, Jesa’s built a sanctuary for herself. She’s been trying to put the attack — and the ten months she spent working with law enforcement — behind her.

We sat at her living room table, surrounded by bookshelves and art pieces, and she walked me through her case file.

[shuffling paper]

Jesa: So the original one that they, so I requested the investigative report and another copy of the... OK, that's this... and another copy... OK, so this is the original of the police report I requested.

Sammy: Almost everything about Jesa’s case hurt her chances for justice.She reported more than two years after it happened, so there wasn’t really any DNA evidence, and she says there were no witnesses, and no cameras.

The suspect was someone she knew, and she says he assaulted her twice, about a week apart. She says she couldn’t consent either time because she was severely intoxicated.

Jesa says she never thought her case would make it to court. But she still felt a need to come forward.

Jesa: I had really low expectations just because, you know, this is someone like, I know rape culture. Like, I wasn't even really planning to report it first, but I thought, well, I can't, I can't not report if I have this opportunity to stop somebody.

[music comes in]

Sammy: I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years trying to figure out what it looks and feels like to report this crime. I realized if I were assaulted, I wouldn’t know what to do or what to expect.

Even if you think this doesn’t affect you, it might be important information for someone that you love. One in five U.S. women are victims of attempted or completed rape, and those numbers are higher for people of color.

[music fades]

Sammy: Unfortunately, there isn’t one place where a survivor can find all the information they would need to navigate the criminal justice system once they decide to come forward.

This is survivor Annie Walker — she reported an assault to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department two and a half years ago.

Annie: You know what to do if the power goes out. You know, you have your backup generator. You have things ready because it's something you've experienced before. I mean, most people don't walk around in life expecting this to happen. So you don't really know what to do.

Sammy: So we’re laying out some of the basics here and digging into definitions that survivors told us were overwhelming when they were in the midst of it.

We also worked with law enforcement and sexual assault advocates to create a full guide to reporting this crime. you can find it at CapRadio.Org/After.

[music comes in]

Sammy: Let’s start first with step one for those who choose to report: contacting law enforcement. You can start this process a few different ways. If you’re in immediate danger, you should call 9-1-1. If you’re in a safe place, you can call the police non-emergency line or you can call your local rape crisis center. The staff there can talk you through your options, including how to make a report.

If you’re injured, you should go to a hospital or other medical facility and they can help connect you to the police after you’ve been treated.

Once you decide to report, you will eventually sit down with a police officer.

If you listened to Episode 1, you heard from a survivor who we call Penny. She emailed us a year after making a report to tell us how dismissed and degraded she felt at the Sacramento Police Department. She asked that we alter her voice and not use her full name, for safety reasons.

Penny: He didn't take me seriously. He didn't really ask me any questions. I remember saying to him it started out as consensual, but he didn't ask me any questions about when it became nonconsensual. The officer also told me “some people like it rough.” And I think that was the worst thing for me to hear, that that was... it's like it didn't matter what my experience was, because if there's a man who likes it rough, then that's his prerogative.

Sammy: Law enforcement agencies told me that the way this first conversation goes depends a lot on the demeanor of the officer taking the report.

They say they try to hire people who will be empathetic and that they do get training in the police academy about how to treat assault victims.

But advocates say it’s not enough. Beth Hassett runs Sacramento’s rape crisis center. It’s called WEAVE. She says police need MORE training to be able to handle these cases sensitively so survivors don’t walk away feeling like Penny did.

Beth: They have to gather the data and the information and they can do it in a less traumatizing and judgmental way, you know, so. And it really comes down to that officer and what their level of compassion is and bedside manner, frankly.

And I just know a lot of times they're very green rookies who are picking these victims up. And that to me, that's the worst case scenario, because they’re uncomfortable with the situation, they’re uncomfortable even talking about it, and they’re having to ask these really personal and intimate questions that are challenging.

[music comes up]

Sammy: So after that initial report gets taken, a few things can happen.

I’m going to throw some vocabulary at you here and it may get a little technical, but hang tight. You might need this information if you or someone you love has to go through this process. We’ve got a glossary with all these terms online, too. That’s at CapRadio.org/After.

Not all cases get assigned to detectives to be investigated. Due to a lack of resources, law enforcement agencies say they have to prioritize which cases to send on. As far as Penny knows, her case was never handed to a detective.

When someone reports an incident to law enforcement, agencies can file it as a crime report, or as an information report. Officers take a crime report when a case meets the elements of a crime and can be further investigated, while an information report is used when a case may not meet those requirements.

Looking at the case files of our survivor cohort, we saw the Sacramento Police Department filed Penny’s case, along with Jesa’s and one other survivor’s, as information reports instead of crime reports.

That made us curious about how many sexual assault cases Sac PD has filed as information reports in the past few years. And while we did receive data on this from the department just before this podcast was released, we need a little more clarity before we can report on that policy. We want to be able to tell you how these reports have been used.

One source at Sac PD told us that information reports might still go to a detective and they’ll change the status to a crime report if they find enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant.

A detective can also label a case as unfounded. I asked Dave Thomas with the International Association of Chiefs of Police about those.

Dave: These are investigations where the investigation shows an offense was not committed or attempted. Cases can be coded as unfounded because they are either baseless or false. This is where we run into problems.

Sammy: Thomas says law enforcement may be over-using that “unfounded” label because it’s pretty rare that someone makes up a sexual assault. Research supports that, too. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates the false reporting rate is somewhere between 2 and 10 percent.

Moral of the story: law enforcement agencies can choose not to assign a sexual assault case to a detective if they don’t believe a crime occurred and they can stop investigating a case if they think the victim is making something up.

This goes back to what we talked about in Episode 1 — how believing survivors is crucial to solving cases. If you missed that one, you might want to go back and listen.

If the case gets to a detective’s desk, then law enforcement works on gathering enough evidence to make an arrest.

Cassia: If as a result of a thorough investigation, the detective has probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred and that the suspect that has been identified is the person who committed the crime, then in an ideal world, an arrest should be made. The case would then be presented to the prosecutor or the district attorney for review and a charging decision.

Sammy: That’s Arizona State University criminal justice scholar Cassia Spohn.

Cassia: And then once the case has been filed, once charges have been filed, then obviously it would proceed through the court system and assuming that there was a conviction, the judge would impose some type of sentence. So that's kind of an idealized view of how the system ought to work and how, in fact, it does work in a lot of different kinds of crimes. It's just that it often doesn't work like that in sexual assault cases.

Sammy: That’s because of a lot of different factors. Sometimes survivors can’t remember all of the details of the attack or there are difficulties collecting evidence. Many of these cases come down to a “he said/she said” argument, and victims are left fighting for their truth, often with little to show for it.

Several experts have told us that perpetrators of sexual assault are less likely to end up incarcerated than perpetrators of other crimes.

We weren’t able to get local data on that and we learned that no one is really tracking it nationally, either.

Linda: Our systems are not really set up to look at, you know, what, what happened to all the cases that came into your office and then where did they go.

Sammy: Linda Williams researches the justice system at Wellesley University. She looked at nearly 3,000 rape or attempted rape cases across six jurisdictions for a 2019 study, and found that 19% of them ended in an arrest, but less than 2% went to trial.

The cases her team looked at were reported to police between 2008 and 2010. We weren’t able to find any research that looked at more recent cases.

But Williams says that this trend has likely stayed the same.

Linda: I don't see any indication that the findings are no longer relevant or that things are getting a lot better. There's still many, many cases that are not going forward.

Sammy: And that can be incredibly frustrating for survivors. So far we’ve walked you through two reports: Penny’s, and Jesa’s.

Penny’s case hit an almost immediate dead end after what she describes as a damaging experience with a patrol officer.

But Jesa — who you heard from at the beginning of this episode — got a little bit further into the maze of the criminal justice system. Her case was handed off to a detective, and she heard back from that detective pretty promptly.

She spent ten months working with detectives at the police department

Jesa: It's been like a second job.

Sammy: I’m trying to put myself in Jesa’s shoes here. We all know that familiar feeling of waiting for an email to come in. Imagine constantly checking your phone or your inbox for an update on your case. Maybe while you’re working full-time or trying to raise a child.

It’s a constant pull at your attention. It’s this low-level stress about the status of your case.

And for a lot of survivors, that sense of feeling powerless makes it hard for them to work through the trauma.

Here’s Jesa again.

Jesa: When I think about it I get really, really frustrated. Having to deal with every step of the way, having to call the sergeant and making it very clear it wasn’t a priority, and then having to call the detective when it finally got the case assigned.

And they were kind of condescending each time when they’d explain stuff and I just kind of pushed through and said OK, this is what I’m explaining. Every time I’d just try to have to let go of that conversation and just the next step, it’s just forward. I’m not dwelling on this stuff.

But then you stop after, you know, It’s been over a year now since they told me they weren’t really going to do anything with the case and it’s going to just sit there. All this stuff that I did, everything they wanted, I did it. I worked so hard. And it went nowhere. It is infuriating.

Aurora: Be prepared for your detective to just not call you. Make sure that you contact or follow up with your detective. They may not reach out to you. They’re busy on multiple cases. It’s like you’re not a priority to them.

Sammy: In one of our group recording sessions, Aurora Jimenez talked about the lack of communication when she reported a rape to Sacramento police five-and-a-half years ago. She says that she never heard back from a detective.

Aurora: Why is there no follow up with a detective like you promised? Why? Why would you hand us some fucking card and say, OK, we'll contact you. And then not contact us? Like, why? What is the point? Are you really trying to make us feel worse? That's what it felt like. It's like, oh, so now you're gonna also break a promise from the one institution that's taught, that we're taught we can rely on.

Erin: You have to reach out and you have to do this and I had to message him on Instagram and was going back and forth with emails with her like, and nothing happened.

Sammy: That’s Erin Price-Dickson, she reported a rape in 2018 and participated in an investigation for about a year.

Erin: I guess what I was expecting, even if they couldn't move forward or were at a phase where they're waiting on something, I would have liked that communication given to me versus me reaching out after not hearing from somebody for weeks or months about my case. I would have just liked a better form of communication.

Even if you're just messaging me or calling me to let me know, like, “hey Erin, you know, we are still working on your case. It is still open. But this is the stage we're at right now. So I just wanted to give you a heads up.”I guess that would have made me feel more at ease and just comfort knowing that versus just not knowing anything at all.

[music fades]

[theme music comes in]

Sammy: All of the survivors in our cohort who reported their assaults said being in the dark about their cases was one of the most frustrating parts of this process.

Detectives and sergeants we talked to say they try to keep victims updated. In Elk Grove, that’s a suburb of Sacramento, the Police Department is starting to use a new program. It let’s them text updates to crime victims during an investigation. It also has a survey function so officers can get input on how the victim feels the interaction went.

But there is a lot of variation in how departments handle this.

When I talked to Michelle Hendricks for this story, she was running the Sacramento Sheriff’s department’s sex and elder abuse bureau.. She retired in May 2020.

Michelle: There is no hard and fast rule. I mean, I have some detectives who talk to victims every day. Some, you know, technology has allowed them to text. They can email, phone call, leave messages. Some victims don't want to be contacted. They're like, don't bother me. Just call me when you need to tell me something.

Sammy: And there are some things that law enforcement says they can’t tell victims, because it could compromise the investigation.

Here’s Adrian Passadore, a lieutenant with the Rocklin Police Department. It’s in a suburb of Sacramento.

Adrian: I think a lot of officers want to be impartial and fact finders. So, you know, I don't know if maybe in doing that they don't keep people, like, abreast of what's going on enough because they're worried about compromising their investigation. Officers worry if you're in too much contact with someone, you might tell them things that you shouldn't.

Sammy: This is where WEAVE advocates can help. These are counselors who are trained to be the liaison between the survivor and the law enforcement agency.

These advocates understand the ways in which the investigative process can make survivors feel trapped in their trauma.

Advocate Jesse Garcia is stationed at the Elk Grove Police Department.

Jesse: Telling your story over and over and not being believed, kind of getting lost in the big scope of things where negotiating that is extremely difficult because then it reflects on like self blame, like, why isn't my case handled that way or why didn't my offender get arrested? And so it can create a lot of that. Um, and then communication, right? I think just letting the victim know what any update in status is and keeping them plugged in the best way to the extent that I can and to the detective can.

Sammy: For the last few years the Sacramento Police Department and the Sacramento Sheriff’s department didn’t have sexual assault advocates embedded at their stations, but both agencies recently received grants and have hired them on.

Statewide, there’s a push for more collaboration between police agencies and rape crisis centers. This could help survivors feel informed, supported and cared for, even if their cases don’t move forward.

And that’s important, because most of these cases don’t move forward.

Beth Hassett with WEAVE says the stage after the investigation is where a lot of cases stop short.

Beth: What I see more often is it either doesn't end up going to the DA's office, which is very frustrating and disappointing to a victim, or it goes to the DA's office and the DA chooses not to file it.

Sammy: So I need to explain something pretty complicated here about the relationship between the police and the prosecutors.

Law enforcement told me that in some cases where a sexual assault JUST happened, they can immediately identify the perpetrator and they have probable cause and enough evidence to believe this person did it, they can make an arrest.

But if they need to do a full investigation, they won’t make the arrest right away because it’s easier to collect evidence and interview suspects that way. It’s only when they feel they’ve gathered enough evidence that they’ll ask the District Attorney’s office for a warrant to make an arrest.

In Sacramento County, sexual assault prosecutor Donell Slivka says pretty common for law enforcement to coordinate with her on this.

Donell: Most of the time, they're coming over asking, hey, we'd like a warrant in this case. Sometimes they bring a case over and they say, we don't know if there's enough here, you know, will you take a look at it?

Sammy: She says if there isn’t enough evidence for her to take it to court, she’ll sometimes tell law enforcement to go back and do more investigating.

Donell: I get through the case and I have a list of people that are mentioned, and I look and I don’t have statements from certain people. So I’ll make notations of I’d like to find out what these people had to say. A lot of times it’ll be great. I have most of what I need, and other times there’s things missing that have to be done, that have to be followed up on. I always go into every case with the thought of, a crime’s been committed, and let’s see what we can do.

Sammy: But if a prosecutor looks at the case and says that they won’t file charges, police might just close it without making an arrest.

Criminal justice scholar Cassia Spohn says this could lead to a lot of cases hitting dead ends.

Cassia: Our real concern here was that rather than do a thorough investigation and take all of the investigatory steps necessary to compile evidence that would convince a prosecutor that they could take the case to trial and at least, potentially, get a conviction, that 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.

[music comes up]

Sammy: There’s a key term here that encompasses what Cassia Spohn is describing: clearance.

“Clearing” a case means it moves through the system, it’s off law enforcement’s desk. A case can be cleared either by arrest, or by “exceptional means.”

Cleared by exceptional means is a very specific thing: it happens when police know who the suspect is, where they are and they have enough evidence to arrest them, but for some reason out of law enforcement’s control, they can’t. That can include cases where the suspect is dead, where they’re being charged in another jurisdiction, or where the victim doesn’t want to press charges anymore, for example.

CapRadio’s data reporter Emily Zentner has been looking into how agencies across Sacramento County clear sexual assault cases by exceptional means.

Sammy: Hey Emily.

Emily: Hey Sammy.

Sammy: What have you found after looking at this case data from Sacramento County?

Emily: The first thing that’s worth noting here is that this exceptional clearance designation is something that experts have told me is really meant to be used pretty sparingly, but in the data we got from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, we saw a huge rise in the number of sexual assault cases being cleared by exceptional means between 2016 and 2019.

Sammy: What do you mean when you say a huge rise?

Emily: Well, in 2016, the office cleared 5% of their sexual assault cases by exceptional means. And in 2019, they cleared 80% of their cases that way. So just a really significant jump..

Sammy: Wow, so the department was clearing most of its cases that way in 2019?

Emily: Yeah, I was taken aback when I saw that, because this concept of exceptional means, it just didn’t make sense to me, to be clearing a majority of your cases that way. And I wanted to see if my reaction was correct, so I talked withCassia Spohn from Arizona State University, and I showed this data to her, she was pretty shocked by these numbers too.

Cassia: They labeled this exceptional clearance. It was supposed to be the exception and not the rule. And so that seems to suggest that the exceptional clearance would be relatively rare.

Emily: When I talked to Cassia, she told me she didn’t see a way that the department could legitimately be clearing 80% of their cases exceptionally, and it’s just incredibly unlikely to be clearing a majority of your cases this way. And that’s because like you explained earlier, you have to just meet a pretty specific set of circumstances to clear a case by exceptional means.

Sammy: Is this out of the norm what the sheriff’s department is doing? How does this compare to what other departments in our area are doing?

Emily: This is definitely outside of the norm in Sacramento County. I talked with the police department in Citrus Heights, which is a suburb of Sacramento, and they told me that exceptional clearance is something that they use very rarely there. And the data they gave me tracked with that. In the four year period we looked at from 2016 to 2019, Citrus Heights barely cleared any cases by exceptional means. Not at all in 2018 and 2019 and just a few in the years before that. Looking at Citrus Heights’ case clearances compared to the sheriff’s department was super revealing.

I don’t have data from the Sacramento Police Department that we can compare here. And that’s because they made us narrow our public records request down to specific penal codes, so it’s just not as broad of a dataset as we were able to get from other departments.

But I did talk to them about this, and they told me that exceptional clearance is something that gets used very rarely in their department. And only in pretty specific cases, which tracks with what we know about exceptional clearance.

Sammy: Right, so we know what’s happening at the sheriff’s department is out of the ordinary, but can we say anything else about why it’s happening?

Emily: Yeah, we pretty much know nothing about this outside of this data. And that’s because the sheriff’s department multiple times over the past year has refused to talk to us about it. You and I met with Sgt. Michelle Hendricks in early 2020 and we tried to ask her about it then. She ran the sheriff’s sexual assault investigations unit before she retired in spring 2020, and when we asked her about this at the end of an interview, we’d been talking with her for a while, she wouldn’t answer any of our questions about it.

Sammy: Yeah, I remember she refused to answer our questions about exceptional clearance, even after we showed her the data that we’d gotten through a public records request to her department. She just wasn’t having it.

This is a little bit of the tape from that day that we talked to her. This is Sgt. Hendricks in February of 2020.

Michelle: I’m not going to.

Emily: Can I ask why?

Michelle: ‘: Cause I’m not comfortable with it.

Emily: If I can provide you with the data —

Michelle: No. You can send it to me.

Emily: That’s what I mean. If I can send you an email with what I’m looking at and with some questions and with some of the research I’ve done, then maybe we can talk again?

Michelle: What I’d probably do is refer it to the records supervisor, but yes you can send it to me. I mean The goal here is for us to understand each other’s role, for you to understand our role, and I do not want to go down a path that leads anybody with any misconceptions.

Emily: Things got pretty tense as you can hear, and she just really wasn’t willing to give us any information about this. I’d love to be able to explain this more, explain the reasons behind it, but as of right now, we just can’t.

Sammy: Yeah, the sheriff’s department hasn’t wanted to talk to us about exceptional clearance at all over the past year. We have reached out to Sgt. Hendricks after the interview, but didn’t get anywhere. And after she retired, the sheriff’s department wouldn’t connect us with her replacement. They also failed to provide us any other responses to our questions.

Emily: We are still in the dark on this. If we get any more information, I would love to be able to share it with the world, but you know right now, this is where we’re at.

Sammy: Well Emily thank you so much for working on getting answers here, and thanks for joining me.

Emily: Thanks, Sammy.

[music transition]

Sammy: You might remember Annie Walker from the beginning of this episode. She reported to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department. Her case was cleared by exceptional means.

But she didn’t actually know that until we told her.

Annie: Nobody has said “cleared by exceptional means,” no.

Sammy: Emily was able to look Annie’s case number up in the spreadsheet she built from the data the sheriff’s department gave us. When we told Annie about it on a Zoom call, she was pretty baffled.

Annie: This is concerning to me, that mine was cleared in that way because they didn’t, I don’t know, investigate enough to like get evidence.

Annie was told her case was not sent to the DA.

Actually, none of the five survivors who you’ve heard from so far ended up working with the DA’s office.

Jesa David says it still bothers her that her case didn’t make it to prosecutors.

Jesa: I don't get it and I don't get what the stakes are like, what if you do pass this on to the DA? Like what happens then? Like nothing happens to you, like you've done your job, you can move on. Right. And then the DA, they can decide whether to prosecute or not. And then I can focus on that. Like if I have a problem with that or I move on from that, probably I'd be like, OK, at least they saw it. But the fact that it didn't even get to the office where it could make a real difference was pretty frustrating.

Sammy: Ultimately Jesa’s case was filed as ‘suspended - investigation complete, that’s used when detectives don’t have enough evidence to send the case to the prosecutor.

Jesa: I still don't really know why. Why he told me that this is what, you know, like here go ABC and the next step will be D and instead it's like, this is ABC and then we're done like we stop. I don't know what else I was supposed to do.

Sammy: We did talk to one person who made it to the very end of this complicated maze. She says she went through all of the steps after she was assaulted in 2016 — from reporting, to the investigation, to the courtroom.

She asked that we leave out her full name and alter her voice. So we’re calling her Marie.

Marie: Victims need to be lifted up because it takes a lot of strength and perseverance and courage to go through the process and for me, it was worth it because truth is really important to me, and preventing harm is really important to me, too.

Sammy: But even survivors whose cases move on to the district attorney don’t always get their day in court. Over the past decade in Sacramento County, prosecutors have charged the suspect in about 60% of the sexual assault cases that come their way. In 2019 and 2020, they filed charges in 68 and 53 percent of cases, respectively.

Marie’s was kind of a special case. She was one of several victims who all came out against the same perpetrator. He was a holistic medicine practitioner who was incarcerated for sex crimes involving clients. That’s according to documents from Placer and El Dorado counties as well as email correspondence provided by Marie.

And Marie says knowing he’s locked up has been a major part of her healing. Here’s how she describes getting news of the verdict.

Marie: He's now on record. He now has to file as a sexual offender. He now can't do this anymore. There's now something that shows that this guy is a predator. So it made me feel just like I went through all of this for something.

Sammy: Most survivors don’t get that kind of closure. That puts a wrench in their ability to heal from the trauma of the assault.

Jesa gets pretty mad when she thinks about how the investigation went. But she says she doesn’t regret reporting the assault.

Jesa: I just felt like I can’t let this just sit here and not have anything happen. So much effort and so much energy to report, to talk to these detectives, to push them to try to do, you know, keep investigating.

Sammy: She was so dissatisfied with the whole experience, she wrote a letter to the DA’s office. She read it for me the day of our interview:

Jesa: I'm contacting you because for two months I have been trying to not feel deeply disappointed and angry in a legal system that punishes survivors of rape and sexual assault by first by default. We have to report our own violation and repeatedly recount acts against us, which are deeply personal and upsetting to even think about, let alone tell a stranger in uniform then again at the end or suspension of the case, rather, when I was told that even though the accused, etc, etc.

Sammy: She says she got a canned response from the DA but nothing that brought her any closure.

She says three years after making the report, she’s been able to find some semblance of normalcy. She focuses on her job, and her hobbies — she likes to repair and paint vintage bicycles. But she says the assault is not something she can ever really move past.

Jesa: I'm not bitter or anything about this, like, I just, I mean, when I think about it, I'm more like, man, this is like a lifetime movie or something that I'm sick of living in.

[music fades up]

Sammy: Next episode, we’re going to spend some time with survivors and learn about what it’s like to live in the aftermath of sexual violence.

Penny: Because it's so difficult and so painful, it's hard to find words to describe it. I've had lots of days where I said to myself, OK, your job today is just to get through the next three minutes.

Sammy: You can learn more about reporting an assault in Sacramento County and how to support survivors on their healing journeys at CapRadio.org/After.

[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 and chat features on our website at WEAVEinc.org.

[music comes up]

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

Emily Zentner is our data reporter.

Catherine Stifter edited our podcast and Sally Schilling produced it.

Paul Conley mixed the sound.

Mark Jones is our audio engineer.

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

Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.

Music is by Jay Urban. Audiochords from Pond5, Empyreal Glow Ven Sound and Anchor.

We would like to hear from you. Go to CapRadio.org/feedback to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit CapRadio.org/feedback.

We want 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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