Once the prosecutor’s office receives a completed probable cause statement for a sexual assault case, they decide what charges to file. The evidence provided in the probable cause statement written by the arresting officer or Detective helps determine what charges prosecutors file. In King County, sexual and physical abuse of children, as well as sexual offenses against adults, are handled by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s (KCPAO) Special Assault Unit(SAU).
King County’s Special Assault Unit
With charges filed, the defendant and an attorney they may have, go before a Judge. In most cases, the defendant is in custody, and a bail amount is set after arguments from both the prosecutor and defense. The case proceeds to case setting procedures. During this time an SAU supervisor negotiates with the defendant’s attorney in an attempt to reach a plea deal.
Reaching a plea bargain can avoid a lengthy and costly trial. Plea deals have other benefits as well. In a 1994 New York Times article, New York Supreme Court Judge Carolyn Demarest opined, “often a crime victim is very young or elderly, or otherwise infirm and does not want to be subjected to the rigors of a trial. To have to relive in the presence of the accused the detailed horrors of the victimization. In rape and abuse cases particularly, an accuser is often treated on the witness stand as the accused and must have great fortitude to endure cross-examination. In such cases, acceptance of a plea to a lesser crime, with a less-than-maximum sentence, maybe mercy not only for the accused but also for the accuser, even as it exacts reasonable retribution and seeks to prevent future crime.”
In eight out of 10 rape cases, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them
Demarest continued, observing that “in some cases, the judge and lawyers know of compelling evidence of guilt (for example, a confession), know the jury will have to decide the case without such evidence because it has been suppressed as improperly obtained under applicable rules of law.”
If a plea agreement cannot be met during case setting hearings, the case then is set to go to trial. The case is assigned to one of the SAU’s prosecutors. The KCPAO’s SAU is made up of “specially trained prosecutors, who are uniquely qualified to deal with the complex and sensitive nature of these cases.”
Trying a Sexual Assault Case
Celia Lee and Raam Wong, prosecuting attorneys in the SAU, discussed the steps of working a sexual assault case. They explained that once assigned, the first step in the case is to hold a ‘meet and greet’ with the survivor. Prosecutors discuss the survivor’s goals of the case. Ensuring to validate the feelings of the survivor and relaying that they are believed is a crucial part of the meeting. If a rape is reported, there is a 50.8% chance of an arrest.
If a rape is reported, there is a 50.8% chance of an arrest.
During this meeting when the survivor is asked if they will testify. The ability of the survivor, especially if a child, to describe their trauma is taken into consideration. When discussing the survivor’s testimony, prosecutors assure no shame is associated should a survivor decide not to testify.
A survivor’s inability to testify does not mean that the trial will not proceed. However, if for any reason the survivor does not want to go forward with the case their wishes are respected. The exception to this is if the case is Domestic Violence related. These cases remain within the Domestic Violence Unit.
After the prosecutor’s meeting with the survivor, a defense interview is arranged. Held with the defense attorney, and at times defense investigator, this interview is a chance for the defense to gather information by questioning the survivor. The defendant is not present in this interview. Both the prosecutor and a legal advocate are present during the meeting. Typically, the interview lasts one to three hours, and may also serve as an opportunity for the prosecutor to ask questions of the survivor. Lee confirmed that most attorneys are respectful of survivors, though not all are.
Before the defense interview, some survivors read their police statement. Reading their account can be difficult for some survivors as typically a year or more has passed since the assault. Lee explained that though prosecutors are familiar with the case file; the defense interview is the first time hearing the survivor’s story from them.
From the time the case is assigned an SAU prosecutor to when it goes to trial varies but is rarely quick. It is common for defendants to waive their right to a speedy trial after their arraignment. This waiver provides more time for them or their attorney to build their defense. The prosecution will only file charges or arraign the defendant if they are confident they have sufficient evidence to convict.
The Value of Evidence
Prosecutors consider all available evidence when building their case. DNA has had a tremendous impact on the criminal justice system. Forensic science has led to both convictions and exonerations. 72% of jurors anticipate seeing DNA in a sexual assault trial and juries are 33 times more likely to convict when presented with DNA evidence. However, most sexual assault cases do not present DNA evidence. This lack of DNA evidence is not due to the WSP Crime Lab processing backlog of some 10,000 rape kits (nearly 3,000 of those kits have been sent to labs with at least 345 uploaded into CODIS). According to Wong, the KCPAO has a good relationship with the WSP Crime Lab and has not seen a delay in the processing of rape kits. “Rape kits on filed cases are processed,” he said.
For many reasons, including a delay in disclosure or the type of assault, sexual assault cases often proceed to trial without DNA or other forensic evidence. Lee explained that in many cases, survivors might not have experienced genital injuries or any injuries inflicted may have healed. This lack of medical evidence must be explored and explained to the jury, sometimes through expert testimony.
In other types of cases, forensic evidence such as hairs, fibers, glass, skin or dirt, toxicology and impression and pattern evidence including fingerprints, shoe print, or tire marks, may be present. However, sexual crimes against children are often committed by persons in positions of love or trust, and there is usually no forensic evidence.
Prosecutors at times also utilize use testimony and evidence to demonstrate the survivor’s credibility. Wong asserted that much of what they do is argue the survivor’s credibility.
If an arrest is made, there is an 80% chance of prosecution
Part of building credibility is the method of reporting. Many child abuse cases stem from mandatory reporting. Often children do not disclose their abuse because they love and have been taught to trust their abuser. According to Lee, “each year, the Unit sees many cases that were initiated by reports to teachers and counselors at school. The disclosure of the abuse to the reporter can be a crucial part of the prosecution’s case.”
An example Lee shared was a case where a young child described intimate details to a neighbor friend during a secret-telling game. The friend shared this information with their mother. The mother took the information to CPS, and a case was opened. The details given were of a nature that the child would have no reasonable way of knowing, beyond abuse. The manner the child shared the information was not accusatory, but two children who were playing a game.
During the months or even years, leading up to the trial the SAU prosecutor remains in consistent contact with the survivor. Survivors are apprised of the state of the case and alerted to any significant updates. It is unusual for survivors to attend motion hearings, as these are procedural hearings. Motion hearings occur throughout the lead up to the trial and can address evidence, motions to dismiss and defense motions.
Arguing the Case Before a Jury
The start of every criminal trial begins with voir dire, or jury selection. The selection of a jury is unique for each case. For Lee and Wong, an ideal juror is a reasonable and open-minded citizen that can apply common sense. Stating testimony would not be enough, or that they do not trust a child (in a child-related case) are two reasons that an SAU prosecutor would likely request to excuse that potential juror. A jury compiled of reasonable citizens is paramount as the jury, not the prosecution, are the arbiter of the facts.
During the trial, prosecutors will argue the evidence presented to identify the defendant as the perpetrator. They will associate the defendant with the survivor, associate the defendant with the crime scene, and corroborate other evidence. The case has been developed and is argued using the totality of evidence; rather than relying solely on one facet of the case. This allows for the recreation of the entire assault and corroborates the survivor’s account.
If there is a prosecution, there is a 58% chance of conviction
Another point the prosecutor must drive home is that nothing is normal when it comes to sexual assault. Sexual assaults can follow a similar pattern, but every sexual assault is unique. And while many trauma responses are typical, every survivor responds to their sexual assault in their way. Lee explained that she often acknowledges to the jury that the survivor “may have done some things you may not like. That you may not have made the same choices. And that’s fine.”
Recognizing delayed reporting can instill doubt, prosecutors commonly use expert testimony to dispel false beliefs surrounding delayed reporting. Wong spoke to the mixed feelings surrounding sexual assault pointing out that reporting a sexual assault is vastly different from reporting another crime, “when you are raped there is shame, and you don’t know how to feel. But if your car is stolen, there are no mixed feelings. You’re late for work, and you want your car back. It’s not the same when you’re raped, especially if a loved one is involved.”
Explaining Survivor Credibility Through Testimony
As Wong explained, much of the prosecution’s case is built around the survivor’s credibility. A substantial portion of that is the testimony the survivor gives. When it is a case of the survivor’s word against the defendant’s, assessments of the relative credibility of either individual are integral to jury decisions. It is not merely a case of preferring one person’s version to the other. This can place a great deal of pressure on survivors.
Each rape costs approximately $151,423
Acknowledging that testifying is hard and can be retraumatizing is vital. Because of this, prosecutors prepare survivors before their testimony. Working with the survivor, prosecutors instill the importance of being genuine during testimony. Concealing emotion can be instinctual to some survivors, but may read as inauthentic to some jurors. “I tell the [survivor] I take you as you come. Above all, be honest and tell your story. I will help you through it,” said Wong.
Cases can be won or lost based on the survivor’s testimony. Lee explained that survivor testimony could last for part of a day or multiple days. When questioning a survivor on the witness stand, the prosecutor creates a baseline for the survivor’s testimony by discussing their life and interests. This line of questioning introduces the survivor to jurors, allowing juries to see survivors as a whole person, not just as a sexual assault survivor. These different questions also allow jurors to see the contrast in the survivor when discussing their trauma. Prosecutors remind the survivor not to embellish or restrain themselves, but to tell their story.
Annually, rape costs the U.S. more than any other
crime ($127 billion)
The outcome of a trial can change lives forever. From the beginning of the case, the groundwork is done with survivors to prepare them for the verdict. Wong said that he “tells survivors that though they may not get a conviction, they may not get justice, I can promise I am going to fight like hell. That you are going to have a platform, everyone will know your story and what was done to you.”
If a defendant is found guilty, their sentencing depends not only on the charges filed but also on their criminal history.
If there is a felony conviction, there is a 69% chance the convict will spend time in jail.
The Weight of Fighting Like Hell
Fighting like hell for survivors can carry a great deal of weight. In a ripple effect manner, secondary trauma happens when those who work with survivors accumulate and carry the stories of trauma—including images, sounds, and resonant details they have heard. These powerful stories can come to inform the professional’s worldview. An individual experiencing secondary trauma may sense the disquieting things they see and hear are slowly seeping into their personal lives.
Wong confessed that he struggles with leaving his work at the office. He feels the significance of his work for survivors and their families, at times thinking of the stories of those he is fighting for at night. Wong shared that leaning on colleagues is a means to ensure that the work does not take its toll.
Lee said that she could usually withstand the pressures of her caseload. Having volunteered to return to the unit, Lee is in her second assignment to SAU. According to Lee “once you’ve done the work long enough you have a new baseline.”
The KCPAO utilizes KCSARC legal advocates, so getting too close to survivors is not a concern. Admiring their work, Wong said he doesn’t know how law enforcement works without the aid of advocates.
Neither Lee nor Wong hesitated to declare that working in the SAU is rewarding. “Being trusted to handle these cases is fulfilling and an honor,” said Wong. “[It’s] the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” agreed Lee.
Celia Lee is a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Kent, Washington. Currently, she is a trial deputy in the Special Assault Unit where she handles sexual assault crimes against adults and children as well as physical abuse and homicide against children. Lee has spent the last four years in the Special Assault Unit and the Domestic Violence Unit doing trial work and negotiating felony cases. Lee graduated cum laude from the University of Washington in 2005 with a B.A. in Political Science. Following graduation, she worked at the Refugee Women’s Alliance and then attended Seattle University School of Law.
Raam Wong is a graduate of Middlebury College. He worked for six years as a newspaper reporter and earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. After graduating from University of Washington School of Law in 2012, Wong joined the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. His primary focus has been on domestic violence and sexual assault trials.