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Prosecutors Rarely Bring Charges In College Rape Cases

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In May 2012, Tucker Reed sat in the office of Rouman Ebrahim, Los Angeles County deputy district attorney for the sex crimes division, listening to him explain why the man who had confessed to raping her would not face criminal charges.

According to a transcript of that meeting, Ebrahim said it wasn't his job to say whether or not he believed Reed, or tell her whether or not she had been raped. He explained that no one who had experienced a sex crime, or who had ever been accused of one, would end up sitting on the jury. So his job was to filter out cases in which 12 jurors, who "have no experience in any kind of sex crimes occurring in their life," would concur beyond a reasonable doubt that a rape had taken place.

"And that is a mountain that is going to be very hard to climb in front of a jury in trying to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt," Ebrahim said. "That's the main problem here."

"I need to clarify," Reed pressed, "Regardless of the evidence that I have presented, you are worried about the way the jury is going to react to the evidence, and therefore screening out my case?"

"Yes," Ebrahim responded. "I have to take into account what the jury's going to do. I can't just proceed on a case not taking into account what a reasonable jury would do, absolutely."

Reed's experience highlights what survivors, activists and experts have characterized as a critical flaw in how the criminal justice system prosecutes sexual violence.

Amid recent accusations that colleges are mishandling reports of sexual assault on campuses, like Reed's case against the University of Southern California, observers have questioned why colleges are tasked with handling these cases in the first place. They often argue that felony crimes such as these should be left entirely to the criminal justice system -- but such arguments assume that the guilty are more likely to be punished under that system, which is rarely the case.

Although roughly 1 in 6 women nationwide are victims of sexual assault -- with the rate being higher for women in college, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey -- rapists often escape jail time. Only between 8 percent and 37 percent of rapes ever lead to prosecution, according to research funded by the Department of Justice, and just 3 percent to 18 percent of sexual assaults lead to a conviction.

Multiple self-identified sexual assault victims that HuffPost spoke with, in states like California, Colorado, Montana, Massachusetts and New York, said they attempted to press charges against their assailants, some claiming they had confessions, but local prosecutors declined.

"I'm disgusted that's how they treat these cases," Reed told The Huffington Post. "They don't even let a jury make up their minds themselves."

A 'Perverse Incentive' For Prosecutors

The likelihood of conviction inevitably factors into the decision of whether or not to pursue a case, explained Michelle J. Anderson, dean and professor of law at the City University of New York. The reasoning is based in how to spend limited time and resources.

"What you don't want is the police and prosecutor's office to be more concerned with the win-loss record rather than justice," Anderson said.

Recent legislation proposed in California and New York would require colleges to submit all reports of sexual assault to local police. The bill in California was developed at the urging of LAPD officers after it was revealed that USC and Occidental had underreported the number of assaults on campus.

"Law enforcement believes it's really detrimental to leave perpetrators in the community," said California Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who authored the legislation. "They feel kind of handicapped to do their job when these crimes don't go reported."

The reality is the criminal justice system often decides against prosecuting cases of acquaintance rape and date rape. Once a case reaches prosecutors, there's no guarantee of a conviction, let alone a trial or full prosecution. An analysis of the National Violence Against Women Survey by the group End Violence Against Women International concluded that roughly 5 percent of rapes are ever prosecuted. (The analysis sought to account for the underreporting of sexual assault, which resulted in numbers lower than the DOJ's estimates.)

Conviction rates present a "perverse incentive" for prosecutors to pursue only the strongest cases that offer the highest probability that a DA can win the case, said the study's authors, Kimberly A. Lonsway and Joanne Archambault.

"A lot of the early civil rights cases, they weren't pursued because they weren't going to win," said Lonsway, research director at End Violence Against Women International, who frequently trains law enforcement on sexual assault investigations. "We have to take the hard ones to make change."

'They Closed The Case Without Ever Talking To Me'

Reed first reported her rape to Los Angeles police in November 2012, a week after she obtained audio of her assailant apologizing for the assault. Reed had already reported the assault to the University of Southern California in August 2011, where both she and her assailant were students, and against which she would later file a federal complaint.

Reed said that the detective who picked up her case, Derek Fellows, led her to believe he would wait until he interviewed her before he sent the case to the district attorney. Instead, Reed found out in January 2013 that her case had already been forwarded without an interview or even an official statement from her about the incident.

Reed said that her subsequent attempts to provide more evidence, including a confession in writing and audio recordings of the assailant admitting his guilt, went nowhere. Fellows finally told Reed in an April 2 email that the DA had rejected the case.

"It's the opposite of transparent," Reed told HuffPost. "They closed the case without ever talking to me."

Fellows declined to discuss any specific case, but said by email to The Huffington Post that "all victim's [sic] are interviewed." But Jane Robison, senior public information officer for the LA County District Attorney's Office, confirmed to HuffPost the case was presented to their office without an interview with Reed, the reporting victim.

Robison said the office stands by its decision not to file charges in the case, noting their standard is "whether we can prove the facts of the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury."

Reed said she was told by Fellows that in interviews the accused said everything was consensual. She said prosecutors told her that the ex-boyfriend's stories were inconsistent, stating in one recording, "OK, yeah, I raped you, y'know, sorry," and later in the conversation saying, "Wow, but I don't remember." Reed said that she was told by Victor Rodriguez of the Los Angeles County district attorney's sex crimes division that there would be no prosecution and "that is our decision alone."

When Morgan Carpenter met with the female assistant district attorney in New York City who had been assigned her rape case in November 2005, the prosecutor said of the alleged assailant, "Well, I met him. He's really cute. Maybe you just had a weak moment and you thought maybe you could get away with it, and then after the fact, you realized what you had done, and thought, 'Oh, I shouldn't have done that, I got upset about it.'"

Carpenter, who was 20 at the time and has since been featured in a documentary about surviving sexual abuse called "Brave Miss World," said she was "dumbfounded." The ADA went on to say her reported assailant insisted it was consensual, and there wasn't enough evidence to bring the case to trial. She was given a subway pass and sent home.

Carpenter said she wondered if she had done something wrong to cause law enforcement officials not to believe her or pursue her case.

"I felt like I couldn't trust anybody," Carpenter said. "I'd been raped by a man, and the one woman who could've done something for my case, she didn't do what she was supposed to do. She didn't even try."

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