A flawed, inconsistent police response to sexual assault in Maryland

Woman finds out her rape kit destroyed after she decides to come forward.

Catherine Becket hadn't forgotten that evening three years ago in her Parkville apartment, though she tried.

Then, as she watched with outrage while Stanford University student Brock Turner served three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, she resolved to confront her own memories. She called Baltimore County police this summer about reopening her sexual assault case.

But she soon discovered that would be difficult.

Not only had police never processed evidence in her case, the department had destroyed it even though there is no statute of limitations for most sexual offenses in Maryland. Records show that police didn't talk to her alleged assailant and marked her case "unfounded" within hours of talking with her, meaning they deemed her allegations to be false or baseless. And she learned that her case wasn't considered rape but a second-degree sex offense.

"I'm losing my mind. I feel worse than I have in years," she wrote in a journal after talking to a detective.

The circumstances in Becket's case underscore a number of shortcomings and inconsistencies in how police departments across Maryland handle rape cases, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found. Evidence has been destroyed in hundreds of cases, complaints are discarded at a high rate, police policies and procedures vary widely between jurisdictions, and victim advocates say Maryland's law creates confusion about when cases can proceed.

The Sun typically does not identify victims of sex crimes, but Becket said she wanted to go public with her case to draw attention to problems that make victims hesitant to come forward.

"Coming out as a rape survivor reminds other survivors that they are not alone and puts a face on a crime that is all too often shrouded in secrecy," said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Baltimore County police have opened an internal affairs investigation into how Becket's case was handled, and Chief Jim Johnson has pledged to reopen any case should the victim come forward.

"This agency is focused on thorough and complete investigations," Johnson said. "We are doing everything we reasonably and legally can do to bring people to justice who are committing offenses."

Baltimore city and county police have come under greater scrutiny for their handling of sexual assault cases since reporting some of the highest rates of unfounded rape cases in the country — 32 percent in the county in 2014, the latest year for which data is available, and more than 30 percent in the city in 2010.

The city's rate dropped in recent years to an average of 9.6 percent, but the Department of Justice suggested in a sweeping report this summer that police were "creating the illusion of having made meaningful reform" by leaving cases open. Federal investigators found the city's sexual assault investigations to be "grossly inadequate," with detectives failing to test evidence and rarely seeking to identify or interview suspects and witnesses.

Baltimore police are expected to implement a number of reforms across the department as part of an agreement being negotiated with the Justice Department.

In Baltimore County, after County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he was alarmed by the high rate at which police labeled rape complaints as unfounded, several independent reviews of how the department responds to sexual assaults are underway.

Police across Maryland have left more than 3,500 rape kits untested, according to information provided to the state attorney general's office and obtained through a public records request. The kits include blood test results and swabs of DNA samples from semen collected during medical examinations, and there has been a national push to test more of them.

While advocates for rape victims say the lack of testing indicates police aren't investigating all complaints thoroughly, police say it's not necessary to test every rape kit and point out that the perpetrator is often known to the victim.

As part of its investigation, The Sun also found:

Jurisdictions across Maryland have relatively high rates at which sexual assaults are deemed unfounded. Police departments in the state collectively concluded that 14 percent of all sexual assault cases were unfounded in 2014 — a rate that was twice the national average.

•Nearly 250 rape kits have been destroyed by police departments in the Baltimore region in the past five years without being tested. The bulk were destroyed by Baltimore County. Some jurisdictions said they didn't track that information. Other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County police, do not destroy rape kits.

•A patchwork of police department policies means cases are handled differently depending on where victims live. For instance, some victims may only be interviewed by patrol officers. Baltimore County recently changed its policy to ensure that more victims and suspects are interviewed by a detective in the sex crimes unit.

Police officials say the facts and evidence determine the outcome of sexual assault cases, which can lead to variances in how often such cases are marked unfounded. Some also said there are reasons to destroy kits, including when a complainant doesn't want to pursue a case.

But victim advocates say the high unfounded rates in Maryland, coupled with disparate investigatory policies and treatment of rape kits, reflect a dismissive attitude toward the crime.

They also note that victims of sexual assault are often reluctant and may not gather the courage to press charges for months or years. Nationwide, fewer than four in 10 victims report sexual assaults to police, according to a Justice Department survey of crime victims. One of the reasons cited by victims, according to the survey, is that they believed police would not help.

"The mismatch of policies, the high unfounded rates, the deficiencies in the rape statutes do not inspire confidence," Jordan said. "Maryland has to work very hard to regain confidence of survivors."

She said those systemic problems are the reasons victims often ask: "Should I report? Is it worth it?" Jordan said. "That means we are all endangered because sex offenders are left on the street and the survivor does not have access to justice."

State lawmakers and the advocates say they have sought changes to Maryland's rape laws in the past but have been rebuffed. They hope increased attention on the issue will improve their chances in the next General Assembly session.

Becket, who now lives in Chicago, has been reluctant to cooperate further with Baltimore County police, saying she worries that the case would be difficult to prove without physical evidence and that she has felt denigrated by officers in the past.

Rape kit, interviews

When Becket walked through the doors of Greater Baltimore Medical Center on May 11, 2013, the day after the incident, she fit the profile often seen by the sexual assault forensic examination nurses.

According to hospital statistics, three-quarters of sexual assaults involve attackers known to the victim, and nearly two-thirds of the victims are between 13 and 24 years old. Becket was 22 at the time. Both she and her alleged assailant, a co-worker, had been drinking, as is the case in nearly half of incidents.

While waiting for a rape kit examination, Becket and her then-boyfriend spoke to the responding Baltimore County patrol officers separately.

The boyfriend, Warren Boin, spoke to two officers in the hall outside her emergency room and said they focused on his relationship with Becket and not on the perpetrator.

"They seemed to want to build a case that our relationship was rocky and that she was cheating on me," Boin said. "It felt like they were trying to come up with any reasoning they could to not go after the perpetrator."

Becket said she had a similar experience. She also felt one of the officers became aggressive in his questioning. She said the officer told her "at least he didn't rape you" when she relayed how her alleged assailant pinned her on a couch, shoved a beer bottle into her vagina and then forced her to perform oral sex, which made her vomit.

She said the officer told her that "some guys like it rough."

Becket said the interview was almost as traumatizing as the sexual assault. She told the officer she didn't want to pursue charges "at that time," but still proceeded with the rape kit because she knew she was in no state to decide what to do legally.

The nurse who performed Becket's rape kit exam informed her of a 2-centimeter vaginal tear, which Becket assumed had been caused by the beer bottle. Becket said she suffered severe bleeding, and it took weeks for her to recover.

On the police report, the officer noted "no visible injuries or marks on the victim's face, chest, arms, or wrists." He had left before the exam began. Then, within hours of interviewing Becket, the officer closed the case as a "2nd-degree sex offense — unfounded," the police report shows.

In Maryland, forced oral sex and penetration with an inanimate object is classified as a sex offense. In the first degree, which requires additional circumstances, such as the display of a dangerous weapon or an attempt to inflict serious physical injury, the offense carries a maximum life sentence — the same as first-degree rape.

In the second degree, the maximum sentence is 20 years.

'A textbook example'

Not knowing the case was closed, Becket said she called the officer two days later to tell him what the nurse said about her injuries. She was still considering bringing charges.

She said the officer seemed surprised and "exasperated," and asked if she knew more about her attacker. She said she already had given the officer his name, place of employment and a description. The police report written two days before included his full name, age, race, height, weight, and physical description, down to a tattoo.

Becket didn't resolve to pursue the case until two weeks later, after the alleged perpetrator had quit his job, giving her the confidence to go forward. She called the officer. But again, she was disappointed.

"He sighed and said he would call me back," she said. By the time the officer called back a few hours later, she said she was at work and again lost her nerve to seek charges.

Baltimore County police said they can't proceed with a case without the victim's cooperation.

The alleged assailant, reached by phone, denied Becket's accusations. The Sun is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.

"I don't think that's true," he said. "I don't feel comfortable. This has been years ago, so I don't know how to address this.

"Wouldn't I have heard from a detective?" he added.

Jordan called Becket's case "a textbook example of why we need to preserve evidence and why we want to make sure that all survivors are interviewed by trained detectives."

Police never sent Becket's rape kit to be tested for DNA. The kit and beer bottle were destroyed a little more than a year after she reported the alleged assault, according to Baltimore County police. Under department policy, second-degree sexual offenses are reviewed after a year, and if the victim isn't cooperating, the evidence may be destroyed.

Police officials said Becket should have been told about the one-year rape kit retention policy, and that they now have a written policy to give to victims. Officials also said they sent a letter to notify her that they planned to destroy the other evidence, including the bottle and clothes, but she said she never received it.

Becket said police have informed her the department could reopen her case but that it would be a "he said-she said case."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said DNA testing of the bottle allegedly used in the assault would have been crucial. He also said that authorities would not be able to go forward without Becket's cooperation because they would need her as a witness.

Baltimore County has commissioned four independent reviews of the 150 rape investigations that resulted in the allegations being deemed unfounded over the past three years.

So far, most of the victims have not wanted to reopen their cases, according to Lt. Michael Peterson, a supervisor in the Special Victims Team. Sgt. Rose Brady, who has led the county's sex crimes division since 2004, said it is rare that victims decide to come forward years later.

Chief Johnson said only three sexual assault victims, including Becket, have complained about treatment by officers over the past 10 years. He said officers receive training on sexual assault investigations at the police academy and then every three years.

"If I have a police officer that is not treating a victim with compassion and understanding and sensitivity, we're going to deal with it," Johnson said.

Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said that labeling Becket's case unfounded was an "administrative error" but that it did not affect how the case was handled. Still, the police officer's conduct is the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

Becket is cooperating with internal affairs investigators but has not spoken to a special victims detective, doubtful that reopening her sexual assault case would bring justice.

'Unfounded' cases

Victim advocates and criminologists say police often miscategorize sexual assault cases as "unfounded."

In theory, allegations would be deemed false or baseless only after an investigation. But too often, critics say, officers discard complaints based solely on inconsistencies in a victim's story or because they became suspicious of the way a victim acted. They say police often discount complaints by prostitutes, for example.

"No crime is more likely to be incorrectly unfounded than the crime of rape," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

More than half of sexual assault cases were miscategorized in Baltimore, according to an audit commissioned after the city's unfounded rate reached five times the national rate in 2010. Capt. Steven L. Hohman Jr., who took over the city's Special Investigations Section in January, said officers were erroneously coding cases as unfounded without consulting sex crimes detectives.

The unfounded rate dropped to zero in 2014, though Hohman said the department continues to struggle with outdated and lagging record-keeping. Still, he denied that the department kept cases open to keep unfounded numbers low.

Some said that keeping cases open is a way to preserve them. "I would keep them open because years later a witness or victim could come forward," said Charles Wellford, a criminologist with the University of Maryland. "If you unfound them, there will be nothing there. You don't want to do that too early."

Ilsa Knecht, senior adviser for policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a rape survivors advocacy organization, said faulty police investigations also can lead to cases being discarded and that problems often arise when victims are interviewed.

She said police frequently ask victims to relay what happened in chronological order, but that can be difficult to do after suffering trauma, leading some officers to doubt the victim's story. Studies also show that trauma affects the brain in ways that can prompt victims to shut down during interviews that are considered hostile or accusatory.

"The reaction of the first responder is vital to a survivor's decision-making about whether to go forward and prosecute a case," Jordan said.

Most police departments have a unit that's trained to work with victims of sexual assault, but not every complainant is interviewed by a detective with specialized training.

In Baltimore, a patrol officer often responds initially, and in most cases — though not all — the complainant also speaks with a detective in the sex offense unit. In Anne Arundel, sex offense detectives in the county Police Department reach out to complainants unless they tell the responding patrol officer that they don't want to pursue charges or an investigation.

In Harford County, a sex crimes detective with the sheriff's department speaks to every complainant except in cases of fourth-degree sex offense, which generally involves sexual contact without consent.

Chief Johnson in Baltimore County now requires that a Special Victims Team detective speak to every individual alleging a second-degree sex offense, and to the suspect. Before, patrol officers often responded to calls and later consulted with specialized detectives.

The military and some police jurisdictions across the nation have adopted a technique called the forensic experiential trauma interview, in which detectives use open-ended questions posed in a nonchronological manner to glean more information from a victim.

Baltimore County officials said the department is considering such training for detectives and that it already incorporates some of these techniques.

Johnson also is working with other police chiefs to devise a better term than "unfounded," which can mean the accusations do not constitute a crime under Maryland law, to avoid confusion and grief for victims.

"It doesn't mean there wasn't sexual contact," he said. "It doesn't mean that we don't believe the victim. It means that we cannot assemble, verify, ferret out the elements to support a crime."

Evidentiary rules

Police also have different rules for the handling of evidence in sexual assault cases.

Most departments test rape kits when it would help to identify a perpetrator, and most do not test "Jane Doe" kits, in which the victim had an exam done anonymously but hasn't decided to cooperate with police.

Anne Arundel police and Carroll County sheriffs said they test most other kits. Other departments cited additional exceptions to testing. For example, Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties do not test unfounded cases.

As of January, the city had accumulated 871 untested kits dating back to 1986. That was the second most in the state behind Montgomery County, which had 1,165 untested kits since 1981. Baltimore County had 197.

Police officials said they do not consider the kits to be a "backlog" because there wasn't a reason to test them.

Still, Baltimore city and county are evaluating their evidentiary procedures, including retention and testing, in sexual assault cases.

Steven O'Dell, chief of the city's police forensics lab, has been leading an effort to take stock of rape kits and revamp testing policies. He has put on hold the destruction of any kits in which the victim has come forward. But after reviewing the 871 cases that had untested kits, police determined only 12 warranted further investigation.

Rachel Lovell, senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University, said testing rape kits could help confirm a victim's story and in some cases identify repeat offenders. Lovell is working on testing untested rape kits from Ohio that date back to 1993. In one sample study, she found one-third of serial offenders raped both strangers and people they knew.

"Oftentimes, police just look at evidence as value to one case," she said, "but it can help in others."

States including Ohio mandate biological evidence be kept for 30 years. A federal law signed by President Barack Obama in October requires federal cases to be kept for the length of the state's statute of limitations, or a maximum of 20 years, and that the victim get a two-month notice before a rape kit is destroyed.

Becket's was one of more than 230 untested kits destroyed by Baltimore County police from 2010 to 2015.

Lt. Michael Peterson said the county Police Department does not have "indefinite storage space." He also said that it costs money to store the kits, though he didn't have an estimate. Johnson said besides storage, there are personnel, climate control and sometimes refrigeration costs to consider.

Most jurisdictions in the Baltimore region couldn't put a dollar figure on storage costs. Howard County estimated it cost $750 a year for the warehouse space to store the rape kits.

Had Becket resided in Montgomery County, her evidence would have been preserved. Montgomery County does not destroy kits. Prince George's County keeps them for 75 years.

Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford counties allow rape kits to be destroyed under certain circumstances.

The city destroyed nine untested kits between 2010 and 2015 upon the request of detectives, but generally keeps them indefinitely. Howard, which destroyed eight kits in that time, considers destruction when the victim or suspect dies or when the case is proven to be false. Anne Arundel said it destroyed no kits over those five years but does consider destroying in unfounded cases.

Neither Carroll County nor Harford County police could readily quantify how many rape kits have been destroyed. Harford considers destroying kits after one year when they are determined to have no evidentiary value for prosecution of the criminal case. Carroll keeps kits from open, unsolved cases, as do most jurisdictions.

Capt. Paul Starks, spokesman for Montgomery County police, said that victims may change their minds about whether to press charges, which is one reason why the department keeps kits indefinitely.

"A victim could come back after years to seek justice," he said.

Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state's attorney, believes the county should examine how long it keeps evidence.

In sexual assault cases, many victims struggle with self-blame and self-doubt, which may lead them to delay reporting an assault, Shellenberger said. But he also noted that any delay in bringing a case can present problems in the courtroom.

"I still think it's hard for your average juror to understand the delay," Shellenberger said. "Delay is probably one of the most difficult factors to get over" for a jury.

Legislative efforts

Lawmakers have tried for years to make changes to Maryland's sexual assault statutes.

In 2004, then-Del. Anthony Brown, who later became lieutenant governor and recently won election to Congress, proposed "No Means No" legislation that would make nonconsensual sex a crime.

Under Maryland's statute, just saying "no" before sexual contact does not make it a crime. Prosecutors also must prove that the contact was "by force, or the threat of force."

The legislation from Brown, a Prince George's Democrat, failed.

The following year, Del. Kathleen Dumais introduced separate legislation to clarify that prosecutors wouldn't have to prove a woman physically resisted an attacker to prove force was used.

Again, the effort failed.

Jordan said that lawmakers questioned how prosecutors could prove a sexual assault was nonconsensual. "There was a concern that women would lie," she said.

Since then, case law has clarified the issue. In 2010, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the victim did not need to prove physical harm to prove force.

The case involved a man convicted of a second-degree sexual offense against an 18-year-old. The victim testified that she said "no" several times and resisted by pushing the man's hands away when he fondled her and performed oral sex upon her against her will.

The man won on appeal in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which found insufficient evidence of "force, or the threat of force." But the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, ruled against him.

Still, advocates and lawmakers are concerned that some police officers don't understand the law. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, plans to introduce legislation this year to clarify that physical resistance is not needed to prove force.

Jordan, of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is hopeful the legislation will pass.

"There has been a cultural shift since 2004, and case law shows that the court is going in that direction," she said. "If you say no, that should be respected."

Jordan's group also is supporting legislation to broaden the definition of rape to include all sexual assaults involving penetration, such as a man assaulting another man, or a woman being assaulted using an object. Those would now be considered "sexual offenses." Under current law, rape only covers "vaginal intercourse."

While the difference is one of semantics — both crimes in the first degree can be punished with life sentences — it's still an important distinction, Jordan said. It was a surprise to Becket, for instance, that she wasn't considered a victim of rape under the law.

"Calling it sex offense instead of a rape is at best disrespectful," Jordan said.

Baltimore Sun interactive designer Jin Bae Kim contributed to this article.

crentz@baltsun.com

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