Pursuing charges for sexual assault can be daunting to try to navigate. Join us as we talk to Piper, a survivor who went through a difficult court case, as well as a campus police officer and a deputy prosecutor, to try to demystify the legal system.
Piper: My friend did her victim impact statement first and then I went after and I just, it was almost like an outer body experience because right to my right is the man who assaulted me when I was 17. And then to my left is my family, my best friend, her family. And it just, you could hear them crying while we were giving our victim impact statements.
Annie: I’m your host, Annie, and this is Indelible: a class, a podcast, and a conversation about sexual violence. Today, we’re going to talk about how our legal systems try—and sometimes fail—to handle this complicated issue. What happens if you report a sexual assault to the police? What are all the different parts of a criminal court case? What are some of the issues our legal system has when it comes to sexual violence? We’ll talk with a university police officer and a former prosecuting attorney to help us answer some of these questions. We’ll also talk with a survivor named Piper, whose court case dragged out for a year and a half, and still she says she’s glad she went through with it. That’s her voice you heard at the beginning of the episode. Although our podcast focuses on campus sexual violence and Piper was assaulted toward the end of high school, we understand that high schoolers are just as vulnerable as college students and face many of the same issues when it comes to reporting and getting help.
By now most of you know the drill, but in case this is your first time listening: welcome. Every episode, we share the story of a survivor and their experiences with sexual violence. Piper will be sharing the details of her assault, which might be difficult to hear. Do what you need to take care of yourself, whether that’s taking a break or calling a friend.
Let’s listen to Piper’s story.
Piper: So I'll start with the assault itself. It was in 2016, the day before the 4th of July, and it was a neighborhood 4th of July party, not my neighborhood, but my best friend's neighborhood. And she had invited me to it, and we had a couple other friends in the neighborhood. It was a good time, like the parents didn't care, so we were all drinking and playing corn hole and eating 4th of July food. And then later that night we were watching a movie and some of the older kids came down.
Annie: One of those older kids was her friend’s brother, who was twenty years old and in college. Piper had just turned seventeen a few months before.
Piper: Him and his friends came down, and his one friend had a bottle of liquor in his hand and said, "Who wants shots?" And us being the naive children that we were said, "yes." And so he got us very drunk.
Annie: At one point in the night, Piper’s friend pulled her aside and said the guy who’d given them shots kept trying to touch her inappropriately. Piper told her to avoid him at all costs.
Piper: But that backfired on me because then he turned his attention to me and he started to grope my butt and I was like, I don't want that. And so I just kind of did a little turn and tried to get away, but every step that I took further away from him, he took further towards me, to the point where I ended up just kind of being in a corner. And he reached his hand in my pants and just forced himself inside of me. And like, there were other people in the room, but nobody could see. And I, I don't know, I just kind of froze and couldn't really think or do anything. Like the concept of time was just unknown.
Annie: This part of Piper’s experience is common. We hear a lot about the fight or flight response, but there’s actually a third option: freeze. When faced with danger, freezing up is a natural neurological response that the brain uses as a form of self-protection. Many trauma survivors who froze during their experience deal with guilt because they believe it was their fault for not doing anything, or they face victim-blaming for not fighting back. The reality is that, in moments of extreme fear, sometimes we physically cannot move, and that reaction is completely normal.
Piper: And then I was just kind of freaking out but didn't want to say anything to anyone. I remember thinking in that moment, I'm gonna forget about this. I don't have time or effort to deal with this. And so I tried to walk around the basement, get it all out of my head. And when I passed the staircase leading up to the upstairs, he was sitting at the top of the steps and he put his finger up to his mouth and shushed me, essentially being like, don't tell them I'm up here. And then I ran and vomited, because it really freaked me out. And then I passed out afterwards and was woken up at three in the morning to my friend sobbing. And she had said that he had assaulted her. And that was kind of the moment where I was like, alright, I'm not going to be able to just put this back, because it wasn't just me. And so we stayed up the rest of the night and tried to talk through it, but we were so young and confused, and we begged our friend's mom to not call the cops or anything, and so she didn't. And then we just kind of went on with our lives for a little bit and that whole summer we just kind of went downhill.
Annie: Survivors who don’t report their assault immediately may face extra skepticism, but there are lots of reasons why someone might wait a while to make a report. It’s normal to want to forget about the whole thing and hope that ignoring it will make it go away. Fear of retaliation or lack of money for legal fees is also common. Not everyone wants to or is able to report to the police, and that’s okay. It’s also okay to wait months or even years before reporting—what’s important is that the survivor feels ready for that step. For Piper, the months after her assault were a really bad time.
Piper: I always use the term “the snowball effect” to describe what it was like, because it was depressing at first, and then made me very anxious, and the post-traumatic stress started weaving its way in. And we, I hadn't even told my parents and neither did my friend. And it came to the point where she had developed an eating disorder and she had accidentally disclosed to her doctor that she was sexually assaulted, and that that's why this happened. And the doctor was a mandatory reporter, and so she had to then report it to the police. The police called her house. She had to tell her family then, and an investigation started.
Annie: We’ve talked about mandatory reporting before in episode three, but in case you missed it, here are the basics: if someone is a mandatory reporter, it means that if they learn about an incident of sexual violence, they are obligated to report it either to the police or their institution. If the victim is a minor, as in the case of Piper’s friend, doctors are mandatory reporters to law enforcement.
Piper: My friend didn't even know that her physician was a mandatory reporter. She didn't know that that was even a thing. And so the whole case kind of went to the judicial system on accident. We didn't mean to report it to the police. It just kind of happened that way. But once it happened, we kind of realized, like, you know what, it's probably for the best and we should go through with it.
Annie: After Piper’s friend had to tell her family about what happened and the investigation started, Piper decided to tell her part of the story, too.
Piper: This was the very beginning of January when this happened. So it had been about six months since the assault. And I knew that I was going to have to talk about this to them because I wasn't gonna weaken my friend's case and just let her go on with that. But I also, at that point, just didn't want this to happen to anybody else. And I just, I knew he was not a good person. And so I ended up telling my mom and that was very hard. And the words that she said will always stick in my mind. She said, "Are you sure you want to ruin a man's life over one mistake that he made while he was drunk?" I was like... A little bit [laughs] It just, I, I knew regardless of what she said, that it was the right thing to do.
Annie: Even though she was scared, Piper was unwilling to buy into a victim-blaming narrative that it was somehow her responsibility to protect the perpetrator. A couple weeks after she had that conversation with her mother, the police called Piper in to give her testimony. Before she went in, she got in touch with a local victim advocacy group. To recap from episode two, which was about the aftermath of sexual assault, a victim advocate is someone whose job is simply to be with a victim and help out however they can. They’re paid by their workplace or they’re volunteers, so for survivors, it’s always free to get support from a victim advocate.
Piper: We had an advocate come to the police station with me, which was very helpful because I didn't want my mom to be there for it cause it was just awkward. And so it was nice to have somebody else in the room supporting me. But it was a very uncomfortable experience talking to the police because they actually were talking to me in a questioning room. So there's cells around me and cameras pointing on me, and they told me how it was going to be recorded and stuff, but it was not a cozy environment to be disclosing this in.
Annie: Interacting with police can seem terrifying, especially for people of color, undocumented immigrants, trans folks, or other marginalized groups. Even without those factors, making a report can be intimidating if you don’t know how the process works. To help us demystify that process, we talked with Officer Ryan Pokorny, a campus police officer who’s the lead investigator for sexual assault cases in his department.
Ryan: So there's all different kinds of, I guess, facets, how this could unravel. Whether they come directly here, whether they call from the hospital, a dorm room. So I'll just kind of just do a generic one, but there's so many different ways it can happen.
Annie: We started out by asking him to describe the chain of events that occurs when someone reports a sexual assault on a college campus.
Ryan: A victim would call, say, our dispatch or maybe talk to a hall director or a reporting person on campus that would initially call us. And what we typically do is send an officer there to get basic information. Our officers have been trained not to get a lot of the details but just get basic information…. Is it an ongoing threat? Did it happen on campus? The date and the time, that kind of stuff. And then as it unravels the investigation I would make contact with that victim/survivor and bring them here and do a more in-depth, very detailed interview and work that way.
Annie: If the assault has just happened recently, they’ll come to the scene of the crime to collect evidence.
Ryan: We want to secure that scene. And collecting the evidence that we would be able to collect to help that investigation. That could be videos, that could be witnesses, neighbors, getting statements like that….Next we would work on making contact with the suspect, interviewing that person. And then once the investigation is complete on our end, we would send it to the prosecutor's office for review.
Annie: One thing Officer Pokorny made sure to emphasize is that even if a survivor starts a report, they’re free to stop at any point in time.
Ryan: Whether they want to participate in a criminal investigation is totally up to them. Once we are made aware of it, we always put the victim first. We always empower the victim back. If they want to do a report, it's solely up to them. If they want to participate in half of it and then stop halfway, that's totally okay. We never get mad or upset that someone comes here for a report.
Annie: Another important thing when it comes to campus sexual assault is the Good Samaritan policy, also sometimes known as the Good Neighbor or Medical Amnesty policy.
Ryan: If someone does unfortunately consume alcohol, and their friend is hurt and they're both underage, and that friend has consumed too much, they can call the police and not, you know, suffer from the consequences of maybe getting in trouble through the law or anything like that. We want to make sure that they get the help they need.
Annie: Many universities have a rule like this that says if an underage student has been drinking and then they or a friend needs medical attention—for instance, if they get alcohol poisoning or if they’re sexually assaulted—then they won’t get in trouble for underage drinking. This is important since so many sexual assaults involve alcohol: sources vary, but they all seem to agree it’s over 50%. However, even with these rules in place, very few survivors choose to report to police.
Ryan: Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes that we have. I'll say it's probably less than 5% actually report. So we know it's happening even though we're not getting the reports that are coming through.
Annie: Officer Pokorny also mentioned a statistic we’ve discussed in past episodes: how common acquaintance rape is.
Ryan: I think studies just show, and I think we've seen this as well, that it's probably—now my numbers are a little off cause they're from past studies but it's gotta be pretty close, plus or minus—but 90% of our sexual assaults, they know their attacker. So a majority of our sexual assaults and rapes are from people they know, acquaintances.
Annie: One of the many reasons someone may avoid reporting a sexual assault is because they care about the person who assaulted them. Another reason could be that they’re afraid the police won’t take them seriously. And that’s a legitimate fear. Some police officers might be demeaning or dismissive, and some simply don’t believe victims if they don’t behave exactly the way they expect them to behave. We want to acknowledge that. But Piper got lucky, and her case was assigned to officers who handled her case with respect and professionalism.
Piper: The police were some of the kindest people I've ever met. That detective was incredible. His sergeant who ends up being the primary on our case after that was incredible, and I'm very thankful for them because if we didn't have good law enforcement on our side, it would have made the process a lot worse.
Annie: The police helped Piper file charges, and a date for the pretrial was set.
Piper: The pre-trial was supposed to be just a quick and easy thing. It would take an hour tops. Me, my friend who was also assaulted and our other friend whose house the assault happened in, we were just gonna talk, say what happened and they would move it onto a trial from there, but that's not what actually happened. It started at 2:00 PM and we were there until 7:00 PM and it was just brutal. Our perpetrator's defense attorney was probably the most expensive defense attorney in the entire city and most of the process of me giving my testimony was filled with objections and the two attorneys screaming at each other across the room. And the judge was just sitting there letting it all happen when it shouldn't have been like that at all. And this was just in like a tiny municipal courtroom that was like no larger than the room we're in now.
Annie: To put it mildly, the perpetrator’s defense attorney was aggressive.
Piper: It was pretty much everything that is the stereotype of what reporting in the legal system is like. His defense attorney was constantly questioning us on—the big thing that he questioned me on was why I took so long to report. The way he said it was just so brutal. He said, so you said this happened in July, but you didn't come forward in July? And I said, no. He said, what about August? And I said, no. What about September? And he just kept doing that until he got to January. And he was like, so why now? And just kind of like trying to dismiss it as if it didn't happen. He also tried to just like get me on the fact that I couldn't remember how long it had happened for and how many fingers he used, which was just so horrible, like this man screaming about my vagina. I don't know him. And so I started crying. The police sergeant started crying. It was very stressful. It was, it was not at all what it should have been.
Annie: Piper thinks that if the judge had had more experience or training, that day would have gone very differently. She was told that a lot of what happened would normally never fly in a courtroom.
Piper: I remember at one point the defense attorney was just yelling at the judge and the sergeant had written down on a piece of paper, “Can he do this?” and slid it over to the prosecutor that was representing me. And the prosecutor just shook his head no. But the judge, it's his courtroom, and so there was nothing we could do about it other than sit there and let it happen.
Annie: That pretrial happened at the very beginning of March, and the trial itself was set for August—two days before Piper was going to move into college, a six-hour drive away from her hometown.
Piper: So at this point, I was 18 and I was getting ready. I was planning everything for the trial. I felt good about it. I was excited to just get it out of the way and have college as a fresh start. But then it got postponed because of conflicts in the scheduling of trials. And so it was just completely out of anyone's control. It got postponed to November. So then I just had to go to college, still having this on my back and had to then tell all of my professors that I had to go home because I had a court subpoena and I had to testify, which was so uncomfortable because I'd only known them for a couple of months.
Annie: At last, November rolled around and the day arrived. Piper’s mom picked her up from school and they drove six hours back to her hometown. As she was waiting at the courthouse, she got a call from the police sergeant. He said the trial was postponed. Again.
Piper: Then I had to go home. Back to school, drive six hours again…. and I just had to wait until the end of January when the trial was set.
Annie: As Piper was beginning to find out, pursuing legal action for sexual assault can be a long and confusing process. To try and clear up some of that confusion, we talked with Rob Ives, a former prosecuting attorney with over twenty years of experience.
Rob: My name is Robert T Ives. I was a prosecuting attorney in Indiana. A prosecuting attorney is the equivalent of a district attorney or state attorney in other states. The prosecuting attorney is the representative of the state of Indiana in criminal prosecutions.
Annie: When a prosecuting attorney receives a police report for a sexual assault case, they read through it and try to get a feel for how hard it would be to win the case. They also might ask the police to go back and get additional details.
Rob: So after the report comes in, the prosecuting attorney makes a determination to file a criminal charge and prepares criminal charges, and prepares, usually, a probable cause affidavit…. which states sufficient evidence to convince a judge that there's probable cause, that it's more likely than not that a crime has been committed and that crime was committed by a particular person.
Rob: There are certainly people that I suspected or believed were possibly guilty that I did not file criminal charges on because I did not feel that it was morally correct or legally correct to try to convince a jury of a standard of proof that I could not convince myself of. And so therefore, whenever I took somebody to trial, I believed they were guilty and believed also there was at least a reasonable possibility that a jury could be convinced of the same thing.
Annie: In simple terms, a prosecuting attorney is on the victim’s side, while a defense attorney is on the perpetrator’s side. However, if the prosecuting attorney feels like a case will probably lose, they don’t want to spend their time on it. Many cases never make it to court because there’s insufficient evidence to convince the prosecutor it’s worth pursuing. That’s part of the reason why, in the U.S., only five out of one thousand rapists will go to prison.
Rob: Some cases get dismissed because victims withdraw their allegations or further investigation leads one to conclude that it's not likely there's going to be a conviction. Or, for example, the DNA evidence may come back negative. You may file a charge prior to the lab results and determine that the case is not good enough or even there's no case at all because of lab results. So most cases are disposed of outside of trial. I would say sexual assault cases may go to trial a little more often than other cases. But the vast majority of criminal cases, either the person pleads guilty, he pleads guilty with a plea agreement, or there's a dismissal. That's the vast majority of cases.
Annie: As it turned out, Piper’s trial never happened because they came to a plea agreement instead.
Rob: Plea agreements can be misunderstood by people. Oftentimes, the penalty in a plea agreement is exactly the same as the defendant would get if they pled guilty. The defendant is looking for some certainty, so they're looking for an agreement that the penalty will be a particular thing, and the prosecutor's looking for certainty and that a conviction will be obtained. If there is no plea agreement reached, then the prosecuting attorney's job becomes that of a trial attorney, which is to figure out what evidence you have, how to put it in its best possible light, and how to present it.
Annie: When it comes to actual trials, there are lots of different pieces of evidence that could be used. Photographs, recordings, and physical evidence like the survivor’s clothing are crucial, but witnesses are just as important. Attorneys will bring in whoever they can find that were involved with the crime in some way, be that police officers or roommates. They can also bring in “expert witnesses” to talk about things like DNA, injuries, or psychology.
Rob: Our burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is very difficult, but hopefully makes it very unlikely that an innocent person is convicted.
Annie: Criminal trials and civil trials are different in several important ways, including the burden of proof, who controls the progress of the case, and possible punishment in the event that a defendant is found guilty or liable. Even if a jury reaches the verdict of “not guilty” in a criminal case, the survivor could be successful in a civil case against the same individual. Civil cases find the defendant liable or not liable based on the less burdensome “preponderance of evidence” standard—meaning the case can be proven with a 51% likelihood that a crime was committed and the defendant is therefore liable for damages. In a criminal court case, that burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt”—so the evidence needs to be close to 100% convincing.
Rob: The difficulty in a civil case is that oftentimes the people who perpetrate these sorts of crimes don't have any assets to reach. In other words, you sue somebody—you can't penalize anybody through a lawsuit. You can just get money from them. You can get them ordered to stay away from you, but that's a relatively easy thing. But the reason you would sue somebody is…. the burden of proof in a civil case is more likely than not.
Annie: If Piper’s case had gone to trial, she would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her assaulter was guilty, and then let twelve strangers decide her fate. Instead, the plea agreement they worked out came as a relief. It meant that Piper still had to go to the courthouse in January, but it was only to give a victim impact statement, rather than go through an entire trial by jury.
Piper: We kind of wanted to make our peace with it and have it all be over with. My friend did her victim impact statement first and then I went after and I just, it was almost like an out-of-body experience because right to my right is the man who assaulted me when I was 17. And then to my left is my family, my best friend, her family. And it just, you could hear them crying while we were giving our victim impact statements. And that was just like so hard to hear. But I gave my statement and I remember saying to the judge, like, I implore you to give the longest sentence to him that you possibly can, like for all the pain that he has caused me and my best friend and our families and the financial burden that it's caused us having to travel so much and everything. And in the end, she, the judge sentenced him to 15 years on the sex offender’s registry, which is the lowest of the three tiers for that, and then five years of sex offender probation. He originally had, like, 15 charges against him, from each of us. And they ranged anywhere from a first-degree felony to a third-degree misdemeanor. And in the end I don't even—he didn't get a felony charge, I don't believe. I think it was like a first-degree misdemeanor.
Annie: The process for sexual assault trials is so extensive, it’s no wonder that Piper’s case took a year and a half to get a verdict. We asked Rob how long, in his experience, sexual assault cases usually take.
Rob: Well, between the filing of charges or the criminal incident, the crime itself and a conviction, it could take a couple of months and it could take a couple of years.
Annie: Rob noted that part of the reason different cases took longer than others had to do with a lack of control of the court system. A lot of the process is affected directly by the individual judge and court.
Rob: You don't have that much control…. For example, if we've sent evidence to a lab, we can't go anywhere until we get the results from those labs. So if you send DNA evidence to a lab and you want a comparison done, it isn't going to be done quickly because there's usually backlogs in those things. Now, if you tell somebody the defendant's asked for speedy trial and we need it in two weeks, generally you can get it. So it's all depending upon the urgency felt by the state and the urgency felt by the defendant. The defendant has a right to a speedy trial. He can push a trial quite quickly. The state doesn't have a right to speedy trial, but most judges want to keep their court cases moving. So a lot of it's also dependent upon how seriously a particular judge takes moving his docket or keeping his cases moving through the system. Some are better than others.
Annie: Piper’s case took a lot longer than she’d hoped, but in the end, she was happy she went through with it.
Piper: So like a year and a half of just dealing with this and I was just ready to be done with it. And so it wasn't the result I had hoped for, but I was satisfied. It was really rough. But I don't regret doing any of it, honestly.
Annie: In the years since her assault, Piper has gone on to thrive in college and has become an advocate for other sexual assault survivors. She says she’s proud of what she’s accomplished and thankful to all of the people who helped her along with her healing. To close out our interview, we asked her what was indelible to her about her experience—which memories will always stay with her.
Piper: So indelible to me in the assault itself was just the movie on television. I'll never forget the movie. It was As Above, So Below: that horrible, horribly made scary movie. I'll always remember that that's the movie when that happened. And then indelible to me for the court case? Just having—I think the moment after everything had ceased when the defense attorney was out of the room, it was just me, my friend, our families, our advocates, and the detective and the sergeant and we were all crying but like giving each other hugs, and that moment is always going to be in my head because I was just so grateful that it had been over with.
Annie: And that’s a perfect moment to end on.
The legal process for sexual assault cases can be slow, complicated, and emotionally draining, but hopefully this episode has shed some much-needed light on the topic for all our listeners. As we wrap up today’s episode, know this: you are never alone. No matter what, all of us here at Indelible see you, hear you, and believe you.
As always, I’ll hand you over to our executive producer for our end credits. Thanks, Jill.
Jill: Thank you, Annie. And thanks to all of you who are listening to us here at Indelible. I’m recording today from my home where a couple of dogs, a couple of kids, and the howling winds pretty much assure that it’s never quiet. I know you are all making your way and making do as well. I’m wishing you and your dear ones safety and health. Thank you for sticking with us and being such a vital part of this conversation.
As always, I invite you to visit us at indelible podcast dot com for information about our class and this podcast, as well as resources for getting involved—or getting help. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, help is available at rainn.org—that’s R.A.I.N.N. dot org—or at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website: N.S.V.R.C. dot org. Call 1.800.656.4673 for free, confidential support 24/7.
Making a podcast is a lot of work and I’m grateful to all of the Indelible students who continue to dedicate their time and talents from afar to Indelible. Piper, thank you so much for sharing your story and lending your powerful voice to this conversation. Thank you to our guest experts, Officer Ryan Pokorny and Rob Ives: thank you for your work and your words.
Additional thanks to Bella, Victoria, and Donna, our reporters for today’s episode. Thanks as well to our scriptwriters: Kaitlyn, Bekah, and Jonah.
As always, we’re proud to be in the good company of our community partners, The Facing Project and Jana’s Campaign, and grateful for production consultation from Lantigua Williams & Co.
Indelible has been made possible by the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry at Ball State University. Once again, be sure to visit us at indelible podcast dot com and follow us on social media for updates—and to join in the conversation.
There’s no script and no one right way to make it through these strange, scary times in quarantine. Always, but especially in the challenging days ahead: Treat yourself with gentleness.
I’m Jill Christman, and this has been Indelible.