Five years ago, Stevie Schlessman was raped, but she never considered telling police.
Alcohol was involved and she was dating the man, she said. And though she knew her story to be true, she thought authorities would doubt it.
“It is how it is because that’s their job,” she said, explaining that police have to ask probing questions to explore the validity of a story. “But when it’s such a struggle within myself…”
Even worse, Schlessman says the few friends she told disbelieved her, silencing her for years.
But she eventually found a group of supporters who make her comfortable sharing her past.
And today Schlessman, who moved to Pittsboro from Michigan in 2009 to pursue organic farming, is there for other victims as a Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services employee in Chatham County.
But even as she speaks up, many sexual assault victims still harbor secret traumas, keeping them from response groups and police.
Shamecca Bryant, Orange County Rape Crisis Center executive director, said recounting a rape to police can be re-traumatizing, which keeps many from seeking help from law enforcement.
And even when rape and sexual assaults are reported, it is a long and unlikely journey from a police report to a conviction.
Of the 37 cases of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault reported to the Chapel Hill Police Department from 2007 to this February, eight led to first- or second-degree rape arrests.
Police also made five other arrests on second-degree rape charges in 2007, all related to one 2006 incident.
Not one of those arrests led to a rape conviction.
Of the 13 arrests, nine cases were dismissed because of lack of probable cause or because a victim wouldn’t prosecute.
Three led to a guilty plea, but in each plea agreement a second-degree rape charge was dismissed and the person was convicted of a lesser offense.
Sabrina Garcia, head of Chapel Hill Police Department’s sexual assault crisis unit, said the low conviction rate for rape cases — a common trend state- and nationwide — can factor into victims’ decision to prosecute.
“My experience is that many times you may have victim hesitance,” she said.
Bryant wrote in an email that victims are often discouraged when they review their cases with a district attorney and realize how unlikely it is that they will see a conviction.
“It can be difficult for victims to learn that there may not be enough evidence to prosecute and thus individuals may dismiss charges,” she said.
But issues that prevent victims from reporting rape to police in the first place can create an even larger barrier to justice.
Hard to come forward
According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates, 54 percent of rapes are never reported to police.
Though statistics are hard to nail down, local responders said rape victims often either don’t report or they wait until long after the assault to share their stories.
Garcia said sometimes, victims won’t report a rape for weeks or months.
She said while police encourage those after-the-fact reports as a healing process for the victim, at that point little to no evidence remains to pursue a prosecution.
Other times, she said, people report rapes immediately but aren’t sure if they will want to go through with a prosecution.
“Ultimately, it’s their decision,” she said. “I would hope that we would not mimic the type of coercion that they just experienced.”
But she said police make sure to let victims know that evidence will be essential if they choose to pursue a court case, and can be held by police if they do not.
Even if a case is promptly reported and an arrest is made, rape cases are often less likely to result in an actual prosecution than a typical felony.
In North Carolina as a whole, 186 cases of second-degree rape were disposed in fiscal year 2010-11, according to court system data.
That number is 6 percentage points higher than the statewide dismissal rate for all felonies.
Bryant said that if victims are assaulted by someone in their social circle or are disbelieved by friends and family, they might ask to dismiss charges to avoid being cast out of their social group.
“Victims are often in shock post-assault and are dealing with feelings of guilt and shame which can be further exacerbated by the investigation,” she said.
And Laurie Graham, programs director at the rape crisis center, said going to court can make victims feel a lack of control.
“One thing that is important to our agency is to give control back,” she said. “In court, they are represented by the state, and the survivor doesn’t have control.”
Garcia said victims might also choose not to pursue a conviction because they have a close relationship with their rapist.
“Whether it’s someone known to the person or a stranger really changes the dynamics,” she said. “When you have a known relationship, there may be a lot of confusion.”
And because rape cases are often complicated by relationships and context, it can be hard to gather enough evidence to make a court case, she said.
Difficult to convict
If a case does make it to a judge, Garcia said she often has to help victims accept that the person who they say attacked them might not be convicted of rape.
As with most felonies, far more rape cases are settled through plea agreements than at trial — frequently allowing those accused of rape to settle for a lesser conviction.
“You have to weigh what do you have, and what do you want,” Garcia said.
In all three Chapel Hill cases that led to guilty pleas, the defendant was convicted of a less serious offense than he was charged with.
In the first case, charges of second-degree rape and sexual battery ended in convictions for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and false imprisonment — both misdemeanor offenses.
In another case, a second-degree rape charge ended in a conviction for assault on a female and false imprisonment, again misdemeanors.
And in the third, charges of second-degree rape and first-degree kidnapping were dismissed for a misdemeanor sexual battery and a felony assault by strangulation conviction.
Each of those outcomes carries a lesser sentence than second-degree rape.
For instance, while second-degree rape is a felony punishable by more than 20 years in prison, sexual battery falls into the most serious class of misdemeanor. It carries a maximum 150-day prison sentence for an offender with multiple prior convictions.
The man in the third Chapel Hill case was given that 150-day sentence, along with a maximum 2 year, 6 month sentence for his felony assault.
Jeff Welty, a professor at the UNC School of Government who specializes in North Carolina sentencing, said the jump from a second-degree rape charge to a misdemeanor charge is a large one — but there aren’t a lot of options prosecutors can pursue in between.
“That’s a pretty significant reduction. It’s very common,” he said.
He said many factors can guide the state to offer favorable plea agreements in a rape case.
For one thing, the state may have a heavy caseload and hope to dispose of the case quickly.
But often, prosecutors simply lack the evidence they need to carry a cut-and-dried conviction.
Garcia said lack of physical evidence and witnesses can drive prosecutors to pursue a plea agreement, because some admission of guilt is better than none.
“What you have to streamline with a victim is how they think about accountability,” she said.
She also said victims choose to go to court for different reasons, and they aren’t always simply aiming for a rape conviction.
She said that some want an admission of wrongdoing — even if that means a plea agreement.
“It ranges from, ‘I want him forever in jail, in prison,’ … to those that say, ‘This person needs help. I want them to get help.’”
She said that even if a case ends in a prison sentence, a guilty conviction doesn’t always bring closure.
“There is no way that any court can return a victim’s feeling of safety.”
Guarding victims and safety
Garcia said while police have a public safety interest in encouraging victims to prosecute sexual assailants, especially in the case of assault by a stranger, her department is careful to remain victim-centered.
She said police tell victims about their options but also let them make their own choice on whether or not to prosecute.
“It may not be the one we want, but we won’t prosecute at the expense of the mental health of the victim,” she said.
But she said police do encourage victims to report regardless, so that they can look for similar crimes and improve their chances of catching a serial criminal.
If a report is filed, police can alert other residents to a potential danger through press releases and other means.
“It’s the responsibility of law enforcement to notify the public that there is a concern,” she said.
Police can also help victims to find outside resources, like rape crisis centers and on-campus groups, that will allow them to talk about their experience.
Bryant said being able to share in a comfortable environment can be a major step toward healing.
And Schlessman said now that she can talk about her assault with people who support her, she is moving forward.
“It’s something I’m still coping with,” she said. “To say I was raped is very new to me.”
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