America’s most unreported crime: A look at sexual assault cases in Routt County, and why so many never make it to court
Editor’s note: This story is the first of an eight-week series focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit SteamboatPilot.com/news/in-our-shoes.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It is not easy to talk about sex. Discussing sex crimes poses another challenge entirely.
But for too long, survivors of sexual assault and other nonconsensual intimacy have not received the voice they shout for or the justice they deserve.
In a small town like Steamboat Springs, it can be easy to sweep a problem like this under the rug and focus instead on pettier crimes, like the drunken partiers stumbling through downtown.
Progress has been made in recent years, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Bill Cosby is in prison. More than 200 prominent men, from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, have been ousted from their positions of power following accusations of sexual misconduct.
Yet, much work remains.
As data shows — collected from law enforcement agencies and court records from Routt County and similar mountain communities — this is not just a Hollywood problem. Like a pernicious virus, sexual assault has spread, however silently, to communities small and large across the nation, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.
It happens here. It happens to friends and loved ones. It happens to children.
Throughout Routt County, law enforcement received 32 reports of sex-related crimes in 2018. An analysis of cases reported across similar mountain communities over a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018, shows no clear trends from year to year. Two years ago, for example, there were only 16 such reports in Routt County.
Across communities, population was the only noticeable factor determining the number of reports. The more people, the more reports.
But these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of sexual assaults — 80% — never get reported, according to a 2016 analysis of violent crime by the U.S. Department of Justice. That makes it the most unreported crime against a person.
Other major studies have tried to fill this gap in reporting. An analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives.
If 32 sex crimes were reported in Routt County last year, accounting for an 80% disparity means about 160 sex crimes may have actually occurred.
Colorado separates sex crimes into three basic categories
- Sexual assault (C.R.S. 18-3-402) ) is the most serious sex crime but also the hardest to prosecute. It includes instances of: rape, forced oral copulation and penetration with a foreign object. These typically carry a Class 4 felony charge.
- Sexual contact (C.R.S. 18-3-404) is a broader category that occurs when a perpetrator non-consensually touches another or forces someone else to touch them. It includes: sexual battery, groping and fondling. These are usually misdemeanors, but they can become felonies if the perpetrator drugs the survivor or forces compliance through intimidation, threats or weapons.
- Sexual assault on a child (C.R.S. 18-3-405) occurs when the victim of sexual assault is a child younger than 15 and the perpetrator is at least four years older. These crimes predominantly carry a felony charge, with additional criminal charges if the perpetrator uses force or threatens the survivor.
Barriers to reporting
Most assaults go unreported for a number of reasons, mainly due to the nature of the crime and larger social taboos about discussing sex.
Patty Oakland is the coordinator for Routt County’s Sexual Assault Response Team. As a forensic nurse for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, she is often the first professional to whom survivors come to after a sexual assault.
As she explained, documenting the incident and gathering biological evidence of the assault can be instrumental in bringing criminal charges against the perpetrator but going through the process can re-traumatize the survivor.
Many of her patients feel uncomfortable recounting the events, especially with someone they just met in the wake of what may be the worst moment in their life.
“You don’t know this person, but they are asking to share not just a sexually intimate moment, but a nightmare,” she said.
One cannot understand sexual assault without also understanding the larger contexts in which it occurs. The vast majority of survivors — about 90% — are female, according to data from the Justice Department.
Historically, women have faced criticism when they come forward with sex crime allegations. Anyone who has followed reports of such cases in the news has heard some version of, “She isn’t credible” or “She wanted it.” These statements attempt to delegitimize survivors’ claims, especially if alcohol or drugs were involved.
They place the burden of proof on the victim, presuming that the person involved needed to be more explicit in denying consent. Such statements often come from men.
All of this makes survivors question if an assault was their fault, not the perpetrator’s. Taking legal action may seem pointless, or worse, spark retaliation from the assailant or from society at large.
“If there was any kind of questionable activity that you feel you did, it immediately just turns back to self-blaming,” Oakland said.
Disparities of arrests, trials
These concerns also underscore why so few reports of sex crimes lead to arrests and why even fewer lead to criminal convictions.
Of the 32 reports of sexual assault in Routt County last year, only nine led to arrests.
Matt Karzen, assistant district attorney for the 14th Judicial District, said sex crime cases are among the hardest to prosecute. Before he took his current job, he had the difficult task of handling child sexual assaults in Arapahoe County.
In Routt County, he said his office has one to six sex assault cases open at any given time.
In addition to survivors blaming themselves, Karzen pointed to other challenges that make it difficult to convince a jury of wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt.
One of the primary problems is gathering sufficient evidence, especially for crimes that occurred months or years ago, as is common when survivors are too apprehensive or traumatized to come forward immediately after they were assaulted.
Of the cases he has overseen, Karzen estimates about 50% had corroborating physical evidence, such as the presence of date-rape drugs or semen in the body.
The time frame for gathering that evidence is short. If a survivor was drugged prior to an assault, they have between 12 to 72 hours to document that with a forensic nurse, like Oakland, before the substance leaves the body.
Even with DNA evidence confirming a survivor had been penetrated, it can be hard to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant forced the survivor to have sex against their will.
“Consent cases are the toughest,” Karzen said.
Without any hard proof, the prosecution has to rely on the survivor’s story, as well as any mention of the incident he or she may have made to friends and family at the time.
“Any little piece of corroborating evidence helps tremendously,” Karzen said.
But if it is difficult for a survivor to recount the event to a forensic nurse in the privacy of an exam room, it can be debilitating to do so on the witness stand.
“We have to prepare them to walk in that courtroom with a judge, 12 strangers and the guy who did this to them staring them down,” he said.
Karzen described a current case involving a boy who was sexually assaulted by his father when he was just 7 years old. It took him years to tell authorities, and even then, his therapists said he would likely freeze up on the witness stand if the case ever went to trial.
Without that testimony, Karzen feared the case would end in a not-guilty verdict if it ever went to trial.
“It’s just the stone cold reality that we’d probably lose if we go to trial,” Karzen said.
So, Karzen negotiated a plea deal that sent the father to prison for six years with an additional three years of supervised parole. Such a sentence guaranteed the father could not contact his son until the child was at least 18. While not ideal in Karzen’s mind, it prevented re-traumatizing the boy and allowed him a second chance at what remained of his childhood.
In most instances, Karzen has little choice but to negotiate a plea deal with the defendant, trying to convict him or her on the most serious charges that capture the essence of their criminal behavior. Those deals frequently result in felony convictions that lead to jail time — usually six to 15 years — and mandatory treatment, as well as registration on the sex offender list.
Negotiations often don’t result in the consequences survivors, or Karzen, hoped for, but it is the best they are likely to get.
An analysis of trials involving sex crimes in Routt County and courts in similar mountain communities reflects this reality.
Of the 41 sex crime cases that made it to attorneys’ desks in Routt County from 2008 to 2018, only one trial led to a guilty verdict of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, 33 cases ended in guilty pleas and never made it to trial. In 18 of those deals, the defendants pled guilty to sex crimes.
Two of the 41 cases are still pending. Another two went to trial where a jury found the defendant not guilty, and three cases were dismissed entirely.
Karzen could not think of any plea deals where a defendant pleaded guilty to a sexual assault. The primary point of the plea deal is to drop such a charge. In Colorado, being found guilty of a sexual assault results in indeterminate sentencing — anywhere from eight years to life in prison.
The problem with indeterminate sentencing for a sex crime is that convicts must complete a treatment program before they can qualify for parole and prove they may re-enter society. But as Karzen explained, so many other convicts with determinant sentences are waiting in the queue for coveted spots in treatment programs with much more demand than supply.
All of those people will take priority for treatment over those with indeterminate sentencing, knocking their parole dates further and further down the queue.
“Public defenders will advise clients that if you are convicted of an indeterminate sentence, you need to assume you will be in prison for the rest of your life,” Karzen said.
While plea deals often don’t carry the prison sentences survivors hope for, such negotiations can prevent re-traumatization in the courtroom. Bringing the case before a jury, even with strong evidence, also poses the all-too-common result that a defendant walks away on a not-guilty verdict.
“I try and detach myself personally from this job, but those decisions are the worst ones,” Karzen said.
A time for change
The American courtroom was designed to rectify trauma, not resurrect it. When a survivor of an assault fears the repercussions of bringing a case before a jury of their peers, that points not to a failure of lawyers or a single community, but to the legal system as a whole.
Part of this has to do with how the Founding Fathers structured the criminal process. As guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”
It makes no mention of the rights of victims in such prosecutions.
In a video published by the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, Steve Siegal, director of the special programs unit at the Denver District Attorney’s Office, argues the legal system — borne in a time when people were worried about persecution — was built on the notion that defendants must be protected. Alleged victims are just that — people with an accusation to be vetted with the greatest degree of scrutiny.
“But that was a small, agrarian society, and now, we are a large, complex society,” Siegal said in the video.
While this was supposed to be a safeguard against unfounded accusations, Siegal worries it has gone too far.
“Over the years, we have further and further left the rights of crime victims behind,” he said.
It will take comprehensive change to remedy this issue — change that is already taking shape.
In the wake of issues like sexual assaults and school shootings, legal advocacy groups in Colorado, including the Organization for Victim Assistance, have worked to create a more victim-centered approach.
The organization helps survivors maneuver through the court process and prepare them for the trauma it may bring.
Other changes are taking place at a national scale. The #MeToo movement did not just disrupt a male-dominated power structure in many workplaces; it has also helped to change the conversation about sex crimes and worked to legitimize survivors when and if they come forward.
Actress Alyssa Milano is credited with starting the #MeToo hashtag in a Twitter post following the accusations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, encouraging other survivors of sex crimes to come forward.
Civil rights activist Tarana Burke, a sexual assault survivor herself, had coined the term a decade prior to create a system of support for survivors of sexual assault.
Now, the hashtag is known worldwide and became a symbol of solidarity. It has made headlines of an issue that for decades was hushed.
Oakland has similarly made it a point to discuss sexual assault more openly, even while shopping at the grocery store.
“I get a lot of head turns when I talk about sex assault in public,” she said.
But by talking about it, she hopes to break down the barriers that prevent survivors from coming forward and to hold perpetrators accountable.
That is what the Steamboat Pilot & Today hopes to do with this series. By starting a conversation, we can work as a community to see how sexual assault affects our family, friends and neighbors. We can help those who have been traumatized and educate others. We can acknowledge that we have a problem.
We can begin to fix it.
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