Nicole Seay: The Process of a Trial: A Different Kind of Assault

The process of a sexual assault trial discourages victims from coming forward to report the crime committed against them. After surviving a sexual assault, the last thing victims should have to fear is the trial that should bring them closure, but the process of a criminal trial is grueling, degrading, and more often than not fails to deliver justice to the victim.

So what exactly is involved in bringing a sexual assault case to trial? First, the victim has to disclose their assault to the police and decide if they would like to press charges or not. However, just because a victim wishes to press charges, does not mean that any will actually ever be brought against the accused. The state gets to decide if they feel that there is sufficient evidence, and if they decide that there is not they drop the case, whether or not the victim agrees. One thing a sexual assault victim can do to strengthen the case against their attacker is submit to an examination right after the assault. The examination is invasive and lengthy, often lasting between four to six hours. During these hours the victim is subjected to the poking and prodding of complete strangers who are looking for any scrap of evidence the perpetrator may have left. The victim has to undress completely and be photographed everywhere in order to catalogue the injuries sustained, and their genitalia is examined. To have to undergo such an examination so shortly after being violated by someone is obviously traumatic and can be humiliating for victims, but having forensic evidence helps in encouraging the state to press charges. However, out of every 344 rapes that are reported to the police, the state will only press charges in 13 of these cases. This in and of itself is something victims have to be afraid of- having the courage to report their crime and then being told that nothing can be done about it.

Reporting the rape to the police and having it referred to a prosecutor for trial is only the beginning of the long journey the victim has to endure in order to get justice. If the case goes to trial, meaning a deal could not be made between the prosecution and the defense, the victim of the assault will most likely be asked to testify in court. This is what can be especially painful and difficult about the trial for the victims, specifically having to be cross examined by the defendant’s lawyer. Cross examination takes a tremendous toll on the victims, with many describing “cross-examination as the most distressing part of their experience within the criminal justice system”. The questions asked are personal, degrading, and intended to make the jury question the character and integrity of the victim.

Brock Turner’s rape victim issued a statement after his trial in which she described the process, saying, “I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who didn’t even take the time to ask me for my name, who had me naked a handful of minutes after seeing me”. She gives examples of the types of questions she was asked by Turner’s lawyer, including, “Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? . . . Do you have a history of cheating?”. Personal details about the victims lives are asked, and the victim is expected to answer honestly in front of everyone. This includes friends and family in the audience. When the questions being asked regard the victims drinking and sexual relations, it is obvious to see why they wouldn’t want to have to answer in front of anyone, let alone friends and family. The 16 year old victim of a rape perpetrated by Owen Labrie, a senior at St. Paul’s School, was subjected to similar questioning that was designed to make jurors doubt her side of the story. The questions also went into detail about their sexual encounter, with the prosecutor asking questions like, “Did I read it correctly that when your pants were coming off, you were excited to have attention from him?”. For a 16 year old girl, or anyone, to have information like this disclosed in front of a courtroom containing parents, friends, and teachers is humiliating and can cause victims to feel ashamed of what happened.  For victims to have to relive their assault in front of an entire courtroom is bad enough, but when they are then subjected to questioning like this, that is intended to confuse and put pressure on them, the burden of a trial becomes that much heavier. Having your integrity questioned while at the same time having your life analyzed and picked apart in front of everyone is painful, and enough for anyone to question whether the process of reporting their assault is worth the pain that comes from the experience itself.

After the victim undergoes the trauma of a trial, the hope would be that justice is served and their suffering was worth it, but this is often not the case. Of the 13 rape cases that are referred to prosecutors, only 7 will result in a felony conviction. If we refer back to the original statistic, of the 344 rapes that are reported, only 6 of the perpetrators will go to jail. This conviction rate gives little hope to victims of sexual assault, and makes the process of a trial seem worthless. Why should victims essentially agree to put their life under an incredibly critical microscope and endure humiliating questions after questions if the odds are that their perpetrator will not even be jailed? Brock Turner’s victim further describes the ordeal of her trial saying, “After a physical assault, I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me”. Fear of this kind of treatment, of another, different kind of assault, is keeping victims from reporting the heinous crimes committed against them.