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For Some Victims, Reporting a Rape Can Bring Doubt, Abuse — and Even Prosecution

| November 24, 2017

Detail from a painting by Clyfford Stills, 1948-49.

Detail from a painting by Clyfford Stills, 1948-49.

The women accusing the Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct have faced doubt and derision. Other women, who have alleged sexual assault or harassment by powerful men in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and elsewhere, have become targets for online abuse or had their careers threatened. Harvey Weinstein went so far as to hire ex-Mossad operatives to investigate the personal history of the actress Rose McGowan, to discourage her from publicly accusing him of rape.


There are many reasons for women to think twice about reporting sexual assault. But one potential consequence looms especially large: They may also be prosecuted.

This month, a retired police lieutenant in Memphis, Tennessee, Cody Wilkerson, testified, as part of a lawsuit against the city, not only that police detectives sometimes neglected to investigate cases of sexual assault but also that he overheard the head of investigative services in the city’s police department say, on his first day in charge: “The first thing we need to do is start locking up more victims for false reporting.” It’s an alarming choice of priorities — and one that can backfire.

In 2015 we wrote an article for ProPublica and the Marshall Project about Marie, an 18-year-old who reported being raped in Lynnwood, Washington, by a man who broke into her apartment. (Marie is her middle name.) Police detectives treated small inconsistencies in her account — common among trauma victims — as major discrepancies. Instead of interviewing her as a victim, they interrogated her as a suspect. Under pressure, Marie eventually recanted — and was charged with false reporting, punishable by up to a year in jail. The court ordered her to pay $500 in court costs, get mental health counseling for her lying and go on supervised probation for one year. More than two years later, the police in Colorado arrested a serial rapist — and discovered a photograph proving he had raped Marie.

What happened to Marie seemed unthinkable. She was victimized twice — first raped, then prosecuted. But cases like hers can be found around the country. In 1997, a legally blind woman reported being raped at knife point in Madison, Wisconsin. That same year, a pregnant 16-year-old reported being raped in New York City. In 2004, a 19-year-old reported being sexually assaulted at gunpoint in Cranberry Township, Pa.

In all three instances, the women were charged with lying. In all three instances, their reports turned out to be true. The men who raped them were later identified and convicted.

In 2001, a 13-year-old in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, reported being abducted and molested. “You keep lying and lying and lying and lying,” a police detective told her. In 2015, a physical therapist in Vallejo, California, reported being kidnapped and sexually assaulted. The police called her story a hoax. One lieutenant said that she “owes this community an apology.” In both instances, video footage later surfaced affirming the victims’ reports.

In Marie’s case, and with some of the other cases, the victims hadn’t acted the way the police thought a victim should act. Their affect seemed off, or they declined help from an advocate, or they looked away instead of making eye contact. As a result, their stories became suspect.

In Lynnwood, the police have since changed the way they do things to prevent anything like Marie’s case from happening again. Detectives today receive additional training about trauma and cannot doubt a rape report absent “definitive proof” that it is false. In an effort to build trust, the department ensures that victims get immediate help from specially trained advocates. Those changes correspond with guidelines for rape investigations that sex-crimes experts have urged for police departments around the country. Those guidelines stress: The police should investigate thoroughly while reserving judgment. Evidence trumps assumptions. The police should be wary of stereotypes; they should not, for example, find an adolescent victim less believable than an adult. Some victims will be hysterical, others stoic; police should not measure credibility by a victim’s response. Police should not interrogate victims. They should listen.

Nationally, police departments, victim advocates and academics have experimented with ways to relieve the burden on rape victims who might fear dismissal, or even arrest, by reporting their attacks to the police. Perhaps the most influential campaign to change police procedures is known as Start by Believing, sponsored by End Violence Against Women International, an organization that conducts training for the police and victim advocates. The campaign asks participants to make a simple pledge: Start the process of investigation by believing those who come forward. Police agencies in nearly every state have joined up.

Police in Ashland, Ore., started a program called You Have Options. Agencies that participate handle sexual-assault complaints in a radically different way. Victims can report a rape but request that the police not pursue criminal charges. The idea is to give more control to victims, who might otherwise be reluctant to involve themselves with law enforcement. The detective who founded the program believes it will help the police in the long term by increasing the number of people who come forward and allowing police to collect information that could be used in future investigations if a victim changes his or her mind.

Both programs are controversial. For instance, Stacy Galbraith, the detective in Colorado who arrested the serial rapist in Marie’s case, told us her starting point isn’t believing: “I think it’s listen to your victim. And then corroborate or refute based on how things go.”

You Have Options is an even tougher sell. Many police officers are instinctively resistant to the idea of not immediately investigating a rape. Their job, after all, is to catch bad guys, not let them get away.

It is clear that some law enforcement agencies have begun to experiment with ways to be more responsive to rape victims. It is equally clear that there are no simple solutions. The path forward will almost certainly be contentious. But if we are going to make it easier for victims to tell their stories to law enforcement, change is essential.

–Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller, ProPulica, co-published with The New York Times

Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller are senior reporters at ProPublica and the authors of “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America,” to be published in February.

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23 Responses for “For Some Victims, Reporting a Rape Can Bring Doubt, Abuse — and Even Prosecution”

  1. South Florida says:

    I was raped and they had all evidence but the prosecution decided my fate. They let the guy get completely out of it.

  2. Just the truth says:

    These high power men think they can do anything to women because of their positions, and their wives stick behind them, why because they like their money and are gold diggers, all their wives care about is being showered in diamonds and furs.

    That old saying it is a man’s world still hasn’t changed. Women are called liars and making the stories up, and these men all members of the boys club think they can get away with it all over and over. Just like the boys club they keep women below them in the work place and pay them less even if their doing equal jobs.

    I hope Mr. Moore loses his race, then justice will be served.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In Judge Roy Moore’s case these women never said a word for as long as 40 years and suddenly there is a crisis. In Alabama there is no statute of limitations on rape, which means Judge Moore could be prosecuted today for something that happened 30-40 years ago. This whole thing stinks to high heaven and how does a man defend against such charges as these that should have been filed very shortly after the alleged crime occurred. No woman should be raped, ever. If she is, she should report it right away. Its tough for a women to do, but it has to happen as soon after the crime as possible. When 8 or 9 women wait this long to go public all at the same time, I’m sorry, but flags go up for me.

  4. Sherry says:

    Apparently there are those that just “DO NOT GET IT”! Read and really digest this article, and then do TRY and see these terrible situations from the victim’s point of view. Let me try to provide some insights:

    1. There are many, many ways to sexually violate, and sexually molest, and sexually harass, and sexually control a person without actually committing the “legal” definition of rape! ALL those things are hardly even considered crimes in many states, and they certainly would not be prosecuted without “concrete” evidence. Just where is a victim supposed to get that?

    2. Up until THIS very point in history, women have always been completely “SHAMED” by the majority of society for being any kind of sexual victim. Read the chauvinistic comment by “Anonymous” here. . . they are still being doubted and shamed.

    3. Men still make the rules under which these terrible “things” are evaluated and processed. Just look at what it takes to lodge a complaint against a member of Congress. Such POWER has kept victims from reporting such outrages. Often, even when the victims filed complaints. . . they were “paid off”. . . sometimes secretly with taxpayers “hush” money.

    I could go on and on. . . but the “tribe” that ole’ Anonymous lives in will likely never pry open their minds enough to even try and understand another person’s plight or point of view.

    These are truly disturbing times!

  5. TeddyBallGame says:

    Have you ever noticed? A common trait of all zealots is that they do not believe in the presumption of innocence, because doing so would hurt efforts to spread their divisive and hateful agendas. In the past they have used racial bias, ethnic bias or religious bias. Now they are using gender bias (currently popular among them) to promote their harmful message.

  6. MannyHM says:

    The trend now is to believe as true if several women made such claim. In the absence of solid evidence such as DNA, video and/or voice recording how do you rule out the “me too” movement that makes false accusations ?

  7. Concerned Citizen says:

    I think anyone regardless of sexual orientation deserves justice when rape or any other sexual misconduct occurs. The victim should receive full protection from any recourse that might be possible.

    Now let me throw this out there. Should an allegation of rape or any other type of sexual misconduct be proven false then there needs to be some sort of legal ramifications against the accuser.

    If a claim is made and an accused turns out to be innocent then isn’t that a crime? Especially if it costs them everything?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hillary and Soros could be the ones paying these people to make such disruptions. Hillary can’t stand that she lost the Presidential Election TWICE and that a Republican is in there who is not a puppet and as dirty as she is. If these women truly were raped and affected they would have come forth before now. When one waits 40 years (long after they raised their children) to come forward they need to be hit in the head…cause they have been sleeping for far too long. This reeks of maliciousness.

  9. Sherry says:

    Just how is it “HARMFUL” to work to create a more balanced, equal and just culture?

    “Positive” human evolution towards more healthy and civilized behavior sometimes requires passionate pleas for true introspection and for CHANGE. To live in smug, close minded, apathy. . . while pretending that such horrific things as Racism, Chauvinism and Homophobia don’t exist . . . does not create the path to a more enlightened human species.

    To throw away our moral compass and put “tribal” political desires above moral character. . . while disbelieving the victims of a sexual predator. . . is nothing short of a crime against humanity. But then again, such people put an admitted sexual predator in the people’s white house. . . Disturbing Times!

  10. anonymus for a reason says:

    As a child, I was molested by a neighbor for several years before I told my parents what was happening to me. For trial I was deposed by this neighbor’s attorney who made the assertion that I was asking for it because I continued to visit this man’s home for years because the neighbor wasn’t all bad. Today, I now know what it means to be groomed. In court the judge found that there wasn’t enough to convict him because it was a he said/ she said scenario. He continued to live next to me until he died ten years later.

    Many years later, I joined the military. My mother and father were told that it was normal for my recruiter to take recruits out to dinner. So, one evening he picked me up to go have dinner with him in the town he lived. Almost immediately after being seated, I knew things weren’t right. He bought me a beer, which I didn’t finish. He kept putting his hand on my thigh. I just wanted to go home. On the way home, this man says he needs to stop at his house for a minute. He insisted on me coming in. So, when I got inside, I immediately went to the bathroom and waited a few minutes. When I walked out the bathroom door, he immediately started taking polaroid pictures (to this day I hate the sound of polaroid cameras). He closed in on me so fast that I didn’t have time to break free of him. I was forced to the floor, and as he started taking my dress off, he continued taking pictures. I just froze while he raped me. I just wanted it to end, and when it did I ran out the front door and got in his car. When he came out of the house and got in the car, it was like nothing happened. He took me home, and I raced inside my front door and immediately whet to take a shower. What happened when I spoke up? Nothing. Two days later, my recruiter drove me to the processing center, and tried to come to my hotel room, but I didn’t open that door. The next day, I was in SC for basic training. This all happened in the 90s, and even though it appears we are primed for changing the way our communities handle sexual assault. I hope this is the case, but I still don’t feel safe coming out of the shadows to share my story. I’m anonymous for a reason.

  11. Sherry says:

    OK. . . should we now require absolute “proof positive” such as video recordings/DNA before hearing testimony and putting criminals behind bars? Should we now release all criminals convicted without such concrete evidence? Should we refrain from hearing testimony and making a judgement about even non-criminal “moral character”?

    In a case such as Moore’s’ or trump’s, with “multiple” unconnected victims coming forward with their compelling testimony, should we just look the other way? Should a man’s denial have more weight than a woman’s accusation? What about accusations from several women?

    If Moore and trump are completely innocent. . . why aren’t they demanding a lie detector test?

  12. Sherry says:

    Thank you so much “anonymous for a reason”! Your heart breaking story should be read and re-read, and re-read again. It should be taken into the heart and soul of everyone who doubts that such terrible things continue to happen to millions of girls/women, and men/boys around the world.

    Although we may be able to do little in the way to stop such travesty in other countries, we, as a nation, should stand up together, find our lost moral compass, and shout “ENOUGH”!

    ENOUGH Dishonesty! Racism! Chauvinism! Homophobia! Fear! Hate! Inequality! Lying! Cheating! Stealing! Violence! Corruption!

    We need to take our country back. . . through the power of LOVE!

    LOVE and CARE for Your Self!
    LOVE and CARE forYour Family!
    LOVE and CARE for Your Friends!
    LOVE and CARE for Your Neighbors!
    LOVE and CARE for Your Community!
    LOVE and CARE for Your Country!
    LOVE and CARE for ALL Humans!
    LOVE and CARE for our Planet!

    Live ethically, honestly, peacefully, respectfully, courageously, and obey the Golden Rule..

  13. Anonymous says:

    For some reporting sexual harassment, rape etc. is a way of getting revenge and being spiteful when they may want a relationship to go further and the man does not. All of this is being over rated and women need to accept some responsibility.

  14. gmath55 says:

    Mmmmmm. Bill Clinton was in the White House and was a sexual offender and lied about it! His wife downgraded these women that Bill raped. The point is it doesn’t matter if you are Republican, Democrat, Independent, in the White House, Senator, man or woman, etc. there are sexual predator and offenders among us.

  15. Anonymous says:

    If woman kept their legs crossed, worse clothes that covered what shouldn’t be seen by the world, and didn’t flirt with men then would not move in on them. In most cases it is the woman who initiates things and then when they don’t get what they want they cry fowl. It is also when a man runs for public office that the woman tries to throw a monkey wrench in his goals because she is still bitter. Sex is an adult thing, and the women need to grow up and act like adults instead of cry baby kids. If a woman is harassed, raped or otherwise she should have 14 days to report it and if she doesn’t, oh well. If that law is good enough for those injured in car accidents, it should be good enough for women. A lot of women take advantage of men and most of these woman coming forward know they took part in the accused activities because they were looking to benefit from money or something else. The same with all the rich people now paying out settlements for such accusations. This is not a man thing, both are at fault. This madness has to stop. Either report it when it occurs or sit down and shut up!

  16. Sherry says:

    “WE” should certainly not just “brush off” the acts of ANY sexual offender, by ANYONE . . . any more than we should a murderer!

    One president (Bill Clinton) was “impeached” for such things. . . yet, trump was elected after bragging about being a sexual predator on a video tape! Think about that comparison for a minute.

    There is something terribly wrong with a society that elects such a person!

    When anyone says that denial is all that is needed to presume innocence . . . like trump is saying about Moore. . . just remember, Bill Clinton denied everything and it took a special investigation to prove otherwise. Then Clinton was impeached for his acts.

  17. Concerned Citizen says:

    @ Sherry

    So by your reasoning the moment a woman or man screams rape against someone then they automatically go to jail?

    One of the reasons we are supposed to have due process is to keep someone who is innocent from getting incarcerated. It’s very easy these days to cry rape or some other form of sexual harassment.

    It’s far less easy to put your life back together if you are indeed innocent. In this day and age you are prosecuted not just by courts but also by social media and media outlets. So if you are innocent you are pretty much ruined. On the same token if you are indeed guilty you are getting every bit of what you deserved for ruining someone’s life.

    I stand by what I said earlier. The justice system should fully prosecute those charged and found guilty of their crime. There should also be protection for the victim. That should extend to not throwing the victim to the public by way of media and social media platforms.

    However if an accuser falsely accuses someone of a crime they did not commit there needs to be some sort of consequence. If you cry rape or sexual harassment and it didn’t happen you don’t get a free pass and a my bad then just go away. You committed a crime by a false report and should face legal proceedings also.

  18. gmath55 says:

    There is a difference between sexual predator and sexual offender. Think about that comparison for a minute! Educate yourself.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_predator
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_offender

  19. Sherry says:

    Please do NOT twist what I say and then extrapolate it to the completely and stupidly ABSURD!

    Concerned Citizen. . . you should be aware that there IS actual legal recourse in civil court for those who have been “wrongly” accused or slandered.

    trump “said” that he would be filing law suits against the 16 women who have accused him. I could not find any reports that he has done so. Why Not? Instead, I found this report. . . take a read and really think about the person in the White House:

    This from Newsweek:

    Donald Trump was accused by at least 16 women of sexual harassment and assault throughout the 2016 election campaign, and he still won the presidency.

    In 1994, Trump went to a party with Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire who was a notorious registered sex offender, and raped a 13-year-old girl that night in what was a “savage sexual attack,” according to a lawsuit filed in June 2016 by “Jane Doe.” The account was corroborated by a witness in the suit, who claimed to have watched as the child performed various sexual acts on Trump and Epstein even after the two were advised she was a minor.

    “Immediately following this rape Defendant Trump threatened me that, were I ever to reveal any of the details of Defendant Trump’s sexual and physical abuse of me, my family and I would be physically harmed if not killed,” Jane Doe wrote in the lawsuit, filed in New York.

    The lawsuit was dropped in November 2016, just four days before the election, with Jane Doe’s attorneys citing “numerous threats” against her.

  20. gmath55 says:

    OMG! If you do a Google search on Bill Clinton there are multi millions of links of untold HORROR stories by Women who have been sexually been abused by him going back to when he was in high school from Governor of Arkansas to being the President of America! Bill Clinton had sex with a 13 yr Mmmmmmm! Wasn’t he elected President twice.

    Educate yourself.
    https://www.change.org/p/american-people-former-president-bill-clinton-to-register-as-a-sex-offender

    Bill Clinton is AN UNREGISTERED SEX OFFENDER-NOT ON THE PUBLIC PROFILE -above a law he signed into law!

    People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Again, it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat, Republican, Independent, there are sexual predator and offenders among us.

  21. Sherry says:

    trump promised he would sue his SIXTEEN+ accusers . . . why hasn’t he done so?

    I think it is because he doesn’t have a case against them. . . because he knows he is GUILTY!

    This question was put to Sarah Sanders (the White House Communications talking head) and here is what she said (from “The Hill”):

    http://thehill.com/homenews/media/360975-cbss-major-garrett-why-hasnt-trump-sued-his-sexual-misconduct-accusers

  22. Sherry says:

    gmath55. . . regardless of political party. . . again, the difference between sexual predators in the White House is how they were/are treated by society and the law: Clinton was “impeached” and trump was “elected”!

    Truly disturbing times!

  23. anonymus for a reason says:

    To Anonymous,

    By your standard, I should be concerned in how I “asked for it” at nine years old? I am not naming the men who abused me as a child or sexually assaulted me when I was 19. I have NO interest in any financial gain because of what happened to me. There is ZERO chance I will ever name these men. “Anonymous”…your opinions and suggestions about a woman asking to be sexually assaulted is a dangerous assumption that only reinforces the belief that women are:

    1) obfuscating their responsibility or culpability in coming forward with a claim of sexual harassment against a male. The completely ridiculous assumptions you made with regard to women who have been victimized and /or brutalized by someone of the male variety doesn’t hold weight . Often, they want nothing to do with a pay-day that would make their cases a matter of public record.Personally, I make the very difficult decision to not open myself up to ridicule because my family would be drug through the mud. They don’t deserve that . Besides, no amount of money could help me as much as the counseling I received as an adult to deal honestly with my trauma.

    2) You opine that women who come forward when they experience sexual harassment/assault are simply devious sluts who beg to be abused because we dress provocatively? Really? At 9, I was a child raised in church. My mother had full say on what I wore when I walked out the front door every day! Further, as a teenager I was a complete tomboy. There was nothing provocative about how I dressed.

    So, that being said….Let me expound upon MY opinion. When I was raped at 19, my attacker actually called my home the next day, and thinking he was speaking to me began to memorialize the rape to my mother. I made the choice that I didn’t, at that point in my life, want to pursue the assault legally. At 19, I did not have the emotional maturity to fully comprehend how this event would damage me in every way possible. Fourteen days AFTER I was raped, I couldn’t articulate what had happened. I, like many who have been sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted, buried the event as deep as I could. It was only after 20+ years that I was actually able to verbalize what happened to me back then. You have a very limited understanding of what kind of an emotional effect sexual assault has on a person over a lifetime. Men and women deal with things differently, but your lopsided view of how women publicly deal with sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t withstand muster when you consider that men have these experiences as well. Will you be slut-shaming them as well?

    So, any naysayer regarding my experience with abuse as a CHILD, and then later on as a teenager, I don’t fear your opinion on the issue. You can make ridiculous assertions all you want want. I’m good. With the proper counseling, I am a much stronger human being today because of what I’ve experienced. A grown man abusing a child is a predator! A 38 year-old man who forcibly rapes a 19 year-old…..is also a predator. Not every woman asks to be sexually harassed by dressing provocatively. Personally, I did not open my legs to my abusers. That’s the point, isn’t it? My legs were forced open. I had no say in the matter, “anonymous”.

    P.S women don’t cry “fowl”. They cry “foul”…Fowl is a designation used to classify the Genus of birds.

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