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Prosecutors face difficult challenge

Published: Tuesday, March 18 2008 12:40 a.m. MDT

Only two people really know what happens during a sexual assault: the perpetrator and the victim.
And when children are victims, physical evidence is rare.
Those two factors alone make prosecuting sex crimes difficult. But prosecutors face many challenges when going after accused sex offenders.
There are typically no witnesses to sexual abuse. It is shrouded in secrecy. Cases often come down to "he said, she said." Few are black and white. Revealing details is embarrassing and deeply personal for the victims. It's not a story easily shared with anyone privately, let alone with strangers in a courtroom.
Jurors struggle with who to believe. They make incorrect assumptions about victims.
"People seem to think there is a way (victims) are supposed to be," said Salt Lake County assistant district attorney Paul Parker.
Bias still exists with sex crimes, he said, noting one police officer recently wrote in a report, "I saw her walk. She did not look like she had been raped."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller assigns seasoned prosecutors to those cases, but burnout is frequent. Partly because they're constantly second-guessed by victims, families and cops about their decision to file charges or not.
Even with a good case, winning isn't a slam dunk. One prosecutor recently lost five jury trials in a row.
Acquittals are hard to accept, said prosecutor Angela Micklos. "You get a few of these in a row and you start to lose faith in the system."
Jurors expect more than words to describe what happened.
"We're in the CSI age. People want evidence," said Lori Frasier, a University of Utah Safe and Healthy Families pediatrician. "It's somewhat difficult for an adult to say, I'm going to ruin this person's life over what a 4-year-old says."
Adds Salt Lake defense attorney Greg Skordas, "I think juries expect the government to put on a good show."
Words, though, are usually all juries get, especially with children who rarely experience physical damage.
Reluctant victims have mixed emotions about going forward with a court case. There is always the chance they will back out or crumble or freeze on the witness stand.
"It's a very traumatic process because they're dealing with a very traumatic event to begin with," said JoAnn Zaharias, the Salt Lake County district attorney's director of counseling.
One of her jobs is to relieve victims' anxiety over testifying in court. Along with counseling, she will usually take them, both children and adults, to a courtroom to look around and sit in the witness chair.
"We don't talk about the case specifically," Zaharias said.
For child victims, the Children's Justice Center serves as buffer to the legal system. It is where investigators hear their stories in detail for the first time. Counselors there try to empower children to have a voice. They don't pressure them to tell things that aren't true.
"We want to find out what happened. We don't want to prove that something did happen," Mitchell said. "We don't assume anything."
About three-fourths of the cases involved only sexual touching, which without evidence is difficult to prove in court.
"There's a balance we walk between justice and injustice," Frasier said.


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