July 28, 2007

Rape prosecution - an uphill battle

I’ve come across several stories lately pertaining to the difficulty of prosecuting rape cases. Many of you readers will have heard about the recent Nebraska trial in which the judge forbade witnesses – including the alleged victim – from using the word rape (or related words such as “victim,” “assailant,” or “sexual assault kit”). That trial resulted in a hung jury.

You are less likely to have heard about international data coming out of New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Scotland, and elsewhere about astonishingly low rape conviction rates in recent years. For example, data from Victoria, NZ indicate that only one of six rapes reported to police proceeds to prosecution and less than one-fourth of those result in a rape conviction. With only a tiny proportion of rapes being reported in the first place, this attrition has led to what some call the “virtual decriminalization” of sexual violence.

While these stories were coming across my desk this month, I happened to be in the middle of a provocative analysis by law professor and former sexual assault prosecutor Andrew Taslitz. Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom uses social science research to explain why rape prosecutions remain so difficult, despite the rape reform laws of the 1980s. Through linguistic analysis of actual cases, Taslitz shows how subtle innuendos, proxies, and other linguistic devices can cue jurors to place the victim into certain cultural narratives, such as that of “slut” or “scorned woman” – in other words, “liar.”

Taslitz’ linguistic analysis jives with my experiences in court. When I’ve been retained as an expert for the government (prosecution) in rape cases in which the defense was consent, I’ve been amazed at how rarely jurors convict even when the evidence is pretty solid and the woman has no plausible reason to lie. Taslitz emphasizes that even jurors who are consciously pro-feminist may fall prey to appeals to subconscious cultural scripts about virtuous womanhood.

Taslitz’ blueprint for legislative reforms includes such controversial ideas as allowing rape victims to present their stories in an uninterrupted narrative, using “intermediaries” rather than defense attorneys to question the victims, and having linguistic experts explain to jurors the effects of subconscious biases on decision-making.

My full review of the book is on Amazon.

The Nebraska trial of Pamir Safi, an Army reservist, is featured at Time Magazine’s online site.

Photo credit: fabbio (Creative Commons license).