Sexual assaults at Ohio University and in Athens gained local, state and national attention after a large number of reports during the Fall Semester.
There were 24 reports of sexual assault to the Ohio University Police Department and the Athens Police Department between Aug. 25 and Dec. 3, according to a previous Post report.
From Jan. 1, 2014, to Oct. 18, 2018, there were 110 reports of rape to APD and 55 reports of other types of sexual assault. Up to Oct. 18, the largest number of rape reports were received in 2016 (32 reports) and 2017 (28). The largest number of sexual assault reports were in 2014 (13) and 2015 (14).
Not all reports of rape from APD are sent to the prosecutor's office because either the survivor does not give permission or the report was anonymous.
The Athens County Prosecutor’s office was able to provide information on 41 cases from APD. Cases often resulted in a conviction (14 percent), or they were not prosecuted due to insufficient evidence (24.4 percent) or because the office either could not contact the survivor or the survivor did not cooperate (24.4 percent).
The process and the survivor
Survivors have options for support both on and off campus. One resource on campus is the Survivor Advocacy Program (SAP).
The main purpose of SAP is to consider the perspective of the survivor and help them understand the process, Director Kimberly Castor said.
Castor has noticed one benefit of SAP having its offices on campus is it can help with student survivors’ academic accommodations and the Title IX process. Castor also wants to educate the community to fight the rape myths community members may believe before they decide the fate of a sexual assault case.
“It's not something that can happen overnight, of course,” Castor said. “It's going to take a culture shift. It's not just (in) Athens, it's worldwide that people victim-blame or really just don't understand what the issues are around (sexual assault).”
Survivors can also use advocates from the prosecutor's office such as Becky Filar. Filar, the director of community justice, is the liaison between the survivor, the prosecutor and law enforcement. Her role as a liaison, she said, helps the prosecutor’s office inform survivors quicker about their case.
One of the main concerns Filar hears from survivors is the length of time it takes for an investigation to be completed. She said outside influences, like TV shows, create unrealistic expectations for how long the process could take.
Filar said investigations can be lengthy to secure the evidence that is necessary for a proper prosecution. She said the office tries to let survivors know that even after a case is indicted, it can take six to 10 months to complete or longer.
“That's not fair, but unfortunately that is oftentimes the way the criminal justice system works,” Filar said.
The legal responsibility of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt means that sometimes cases don’t proceed because of a lack of proof, Filar said. That lack of proof is not the fault of the survivor or prosecutor, Filar said, and the office has to exhaust every option before deciding not to move forward with prosecution. Filar said the office tries to “leave the door open” if the survivors wants to change their minds.
The process and the investigation
The process for investigating sexual assault reports is not “cookie cutter,” APD Chief Tom Pyle said. When the department receives sexual assault reports, it has multiple responsibilities, including encouraging survivors to get sexual assault kits and filing search warrants, Pyle said.
Sexual assault survivors are encouraged to get a sexual assault kit, completed through a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) exam, within 72 to 96 hours of their assault, Pyle said.
“We encourage the survivor to get a sexual assault kit done by the SANE nurse at the (emergency department) to preserve physical evidence and then receive medical treatment,” Pyle said.
SANE exams take about four hours.
Teresa Mowen, SANE coordinator and emergency department clinical educator at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, said the exam is extremely detailed and personal.
“I know emotionally, (exams) can be very difficult for the patient,” Mowen said.
The nurses are taught to get permission from the survivor before each aspect of the exam, Mowen said. Survivors can also choose to bring in an advocate for the exam.
“We're trauma informed, so we keep the patient at the center and go at their pace,” Mowen said. “Whatever they’re comfortable with us doing is what we do.”
The survivors can come in on their own to receive a SANE exam or come with an advocate or police officer. Pyle said most of the time, reports come from the emergency department calling on behalf of a survivor.
“It seems like the majority of survivors don't wish to file reports at least at the time they're at the (emergency department),” Pyle said. “Sometimes they'll change their minds, but most recent reports have essentially been anonymous reports.”
Pyle said that after the police department receives anonymous reports, officers will pick up the sexual assault kit from the emergency department and confirm its contents with the local hospital.
During the investigation, Pyle said APD requests multiple search warrants and subpoenas for records such as phone records. All the information gathered from search warrants is sent in for examination.
Investigations will be sent to the prosecutor’s office after the department gets the green light from the survivor, Pyle said.
After the case is referred to the prosecutor’s office, two attorneys look at the case and contact the victim. The attorneys will decide if they can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Liz Pepper, assistant prosecuting attorney and chief of the criminal division, said because certain requested documents can take a long time to come in, cases can be delayed. The prosecutor’s office will eventually present its case to a grand jury in a secret proceeding. The grand jury hearing is the state’s opportunity to present a case to a small group of jurors who decide if there is probable cause and pass down indictments.
If indictments are passed down, there is an opportunity for the prosecution and defense to settle. If there is no resolution, the case will go to trial.
The decision to proceed with a case to trial is as much due to the survivor’s wishes as the strength of the case. Filar said the prosecutor’s office will take into consideration what the survivor would like to see as an ultimate resolution.
Filar said if the survivor and the defense can find a joint agreement, they will move forward with a plea agreement. The plea agreement cuts down on the possible appeal process, which cuts down on the retraumatization. Filar said the appeal process can draw on for several more years.
“You're dealing with the worst moment possibly in someone's life, but we just try to be there and listen and believe them and validate everything that they've told us, but unfortunately, sometimes we can't move forward with things as we would like to,” Filar said.
Castor said SAP tells survivors to not base their recovery on the outcome of a process because the survivor cannot control the outcome.
“The healing is going to start with them, not from a process,” Castor said. “Same way is if they don't get what they want. We don't want their recovery to be stunted based on that.”
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, you can contact the Survivor Advocacy Program confidentially at 740-597-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can report any instance of sexual assault to the Athens Police Department at 740-593-6606 or Ohio University Police Department at 740-593-1911.