Horror Only Starts With The Crime

Women Charging Rape Face Long Oddsin Court

October 06, 1991|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff writer

When Theresa walked into Circuit Court on Feb. 4, 1989, she didn't look like the victim of a violent crime.

And that weighed against her.

She had no bruises on her face or broken bones to show the jury. No one witnessed the crime she says occurred in her home during the early morning hours of April 21, 1988.

There were no fingerprints or bloodstains for investigators to analyze. It was her word against her ex-boyfriend's. Plus, she had to prove her actions did not contribute to the assault.

The charge was rape. The jury, after a five-day trial, found her ex-boyfriend innocent, accepting his claim that the sex they had was consensual.

Theresa's situation is not unusual,prosecutors and police say. Rape -- for a number of reasons -- is extremely difficult to prove.

A review of 26 first-degree rape casesfiled in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court last year show that only five defendants were found guilty. The remaining cases resulted in lesser convictions, acquittals or dropped charges.

Of 27 second-degree rape cases prosecuted, six resulted in convictions, one defendant was found not guilty and eight cases were dropped. The remaining cases resulted in convictions on lesser charges.

The numbers for 1989 show much the same pattern.

What makes rape so difficult to prove?

Start with the lack of physical evidence, says county police Sgt.Bonnie Welsh, who has spent 12 years investigating sex crimes and now teaches at the county police academy.

Plus, juries don't understand the psychology behind rape. "They still think it's a sex crime," Welsh says. "It's not about sex, it's about power, anger and humiliation."

Every rape case boils down to two inseparable issues: consent and force. Juries often evaluate how badly the woman was injured todetermine the level of force used in the attack. If she has visible injuries, this line of thinking goes, then she must have not wanted to have sex.

And that, prosecutors say -- the fact that victims must prove they didn't ask to be hurt -- is unique to the crime of rape.

"If we have a stabbing victim," Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia Ferris says, "we don't have her up there saying she didn't want to be stabbed."

Clouding the issue even further are cases where the defendant and victim knew each other or had some kind of previous relationship. Of this year's 71 reported rape victims, police records show, 45 said they knew their attackers. Last year, police recorded 108 rapes; 67 of the victims knew their attackers.

"We get a lot of date rape cases," county police Sgt. Robert Jaschik says. "I guess theyfigure they know each other and it's all right.

"The victims are getting a lot younger," he adds, saying 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds arecoming to police. "Most of the time, (the attacker) is a friend of afriend" -- a boy from the junior high school or a neighborhood youth.

Rape or persuasion?

What exactly constitutes resistance? As for the attacker, what is a reasonable level of physical or implied force -- that is, what separates rape from persuasion? What proves thata woman in a given situation agreed to have sex with the defendant?

Legal experts agree there are no easy answers, no way of telling how a jury of men and woman -- who may very well see things differently -- will interpret a situation.

Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler recalls a second-degree rape case he tried last year in whicha 17-year-old high school girl had gone to a man's boarding house room and smoked cocaine and marijuana with him.

Although acknowledging the 28-year-old man did not use any physical force or direct threats, she claimed she was raped. The force, Roessler told the jury, wasthe man's suggestion that he would abandon the girl, who was white, to fend for herself in a predominantly black neighborhood in Annapolis.

After deliberating 90 minutes, the jury found the man not guilty.

"The jury found that it was not enough force," Roessler says. "To a jury, force is always a question. The jury may not require the victim to be beaten, (but) they do expect some degree of fear to come,from a weapon or some physical force."

Roessler later prosecuted a case in which the victim had smoked crack with her attacker and he demanded sex in return. When the woman refused, he beat and raped her. The jury convicted him.

Juries, Ferris and Welsh agree, like to latch on to tangible signs that a crime has taken place.

For example, although Theresa had some injuries, one juror said, they did not appear serious. "Some of us had just served on another case where thevictim had bruises and bite marks," said juror Jennifer Mohr, 22. "Her injuries seemed mild compared to that."

Yes or no?

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