Perhaps the criminal justice system is learning how to support victims of sexual assault and consequently becoming more effective in prosecuting rape cases.
By Amy Vorenberg
The above Tweet came from the Metro Nashville Police Department just after a jury convicted a former Vanderbilt football player of raping an unconscious woman. Among the horrific details of the case—the perpetrators took a video of the assault.
When it comes to rape, the criminal justice system gets a bad rap, and deservedly so considering its past lack of effectiveness in prosecuting rape cases. Prosecutors have historically dropped or pled out cases, afraid of taking the ill-named “he said, she said” case to trial.
But maybe we are seeing a shift and the Metro Nashville PD tweet is just one example of it. The recent Stanford rape victim’s statement, which was read aloud by 18 members of Congress on the House floor, is another significant event signaling a possible shift. Perhaps more victims are coming forward because the criminal justice system HAS improved its support for victims.
Recently I sat down with Lara Saffo, chief prosecutor of northern New Hampshire’s Grafton County. Her jurisdiction includes several colleges, including Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the site of a recent high-profile sexual assault case. I asked Attorney Saffo about the efforts she and her fellow prosecutors make to support and protect rape victims as their cases make their way through the system.
Vorenberg: What steps does a prosecutor’s office like yours take that provide support to a victim before a case goes to trial?
Saffo: First, we have sexual assault resource teams (SART), including on the college campuses. These are teams of medical, law enforcement and victim advocate professionals who have been specially trained as rape first-responders. By working together, the SART teams develop and implement a victim-centered approach that, hopefully, will encourage more victims to come forward.
Vorenberg: Do you also work with local crisis centers?
Saffo: Yes, we strongly recommend that all victims of sexual assaults seek services from their local crisis center. Crisis program advocates, unlike first responders, can have protected, confidential conversations with victims. Crisis centers make it possible for victims to speak freely, without the risk of unwanted exposure.
Vorenberg: You also have victim advocates in your office. What is the difference?
Saffo: We have victim-witness coordinators. The distinction between our victim-witness coordinators and a victim advocate at a crisis center is important. Although victim-witness coordinators absolutely provide support for victims, they are there to answer questions and explain the process. Our victim-witness coordinator’s communication with victims is not protected, whereas the communication between victims and crisis center advocates is considered confidential and protected by NH statute. One of the things that everybody has to remember is that victims may not process information instantly, so you often need to explain the process over and over again. Victims need to feel comfortable calling back and saying, “Wait a minute. What is the difference between bail and arraignment? Why is bail being set again?” They are usually new to this system, and it is more than a little confusing. The victim-witness coordinator is there to answer any questions or concerns the victim has about the legal process.
Vorenberg: The first time you meet with a victim are you actually introducing her to the victim-witness advocate?
Saffo: We are trying to do that; that is our protocol. Law enforcement calls us when a victim reaches out to them so we can initiate the relationship with the coordinator. We have an on-call county attorney, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so any officer, can call and say, “I have a sexual assault case, a victim will be coming in.” We can then reach out to our victim-witness coordinator to be on hand to meet with the survivor.
Vorenberg: After a case comes into a prosecutor’s office and a complaint or indictment is filed, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor make pre-trial motions, asking the judge to either limit or allow evidence that they think will help prove (or defend) the case. What motions do prosecutors make specifically to protect the victim?
Saffo: It’s pretty standard for the defense to ask the court to allow questions about the victim’s sexual history. State statutes do not allow such information because it’s not deemed to be relevant, and for good reason. We always object to these requests.
Vorenberg: What other types of motions do you make concerning the victim?
Saffo: In most adult sexual assault cases, there’s been an examination and the medical record contains a lot of information that needs to be protected. For example, medical providers will ask, “What medications are you on?” Medications like birth control or anti-depressants, or really almost any kind of medication, is just not relevant. There may be a little more of a fight over medications like anti-depressants but I generally feel that I can keep that information out of the record, although you can’t make any promises to the victim.
Vorenberg: What about counseling records?
Saffo: You want to protect the victim’s counseling records. However, sometimes counseling records may contain helpful information. They may contain proof of trauma that you want to tell the jury about. Often judges will do an in camera review, which means he or she will look at the records outside of the courtroom and decide which, if any, of the records are relevant.
Vorenberg: Before trial you make motions to keep out a victim’s private information. What about during the trial? Do you take steps to protect the victim’s privacy?
Saffo: We really are in a new era right now. We not only protect the victim in court, we also try to protect the victim in the media and no one really knows how to control that right now. We can ask the judge to limit live tweeting, and we can file motions to seal victims’ names. The judge may not grant these requests if the victim is an adult, although with the new reality of social media harassment of adult sexual assault victims, that request may be granted
Vorenberg: How about post-trial, whether there’s an acquittal or a conviction, is there anything you do on behalf of the victim?
Saffo: We make sure they have a support network and ensure that the victim-witness coordinator is available for them. However, we don’t want to presume that we are going to be the best support person for them, whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty, or in the case of a hung jury. So, it’s being there but not presuming that we are going to be the right resource.
There was much more to talk about, but Attorney Saffo had a busy day ahead of her. The work she and so many others in law enforcement are doing to make the justice system more effective in rape cases was evident in our conversation.
This might be one reason why we are hearing powerful statements from victims who may feel the support of the system behind them. Recently, in a New Hampshire courtroom, a teen victim faced the man who admitted to kidnapping and sexually assaulting her over a period of nine months before she managed to escape. Her courageous statement included these words:
“I want you to know that I did not do this to you,” she said. “I didn’t put you in prison. You put yourself in prison.”
Amy Vorenberg is a Research and Evaluation Consultant at Prevention Innovations Research Center, and the Director of the Legal Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire Law School. She began her legal career in New York as a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney. Later she worked as an Assistant Attorney General in New Hampshire. She moved to the NH Public Defender’s office in 1993 during which time she started the criminal clinic at the University of New Hampshire School of Law (then Franklin Pierce). She served for ten years on the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board. Amy started teaching Legal Analysis and Writing in 1998. She has also taught Criminal Law. Amy’s research and scholarship focus is legal writing, juvenile and criminal law. She is currently working on a three-volume legal writing practice-based textbook, “Preparing for Practice: Legal Analysis and Writing in Law School’s First Year” (working title). She has written editorials and spoken out on campus sexual assault.
Lara J. Saffo, JD is the County Attorney in Grafton County, New Hampshire. She has prosecuted hundreds of cases involving all types of crimes, and has specialized in sexual assault and domestic violence cases, as well as alternative sentencing solutions, such as drug court, mental health court, veteran’s courts and juvenile diversion/restorative justice. She graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville Tennessee in 1992. She began her career as a prosecutor in 1993, as an Assistant County Attorney and district court prosecutor. Attorney Saffo then became an associate, civil attorney at Van Dorn & Curtis, PLLC in Orford New Hampshire. She returned to prosecution in 2004. From that time, until she became county attorney in 2009, she was the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) prosecutor at the Office of the Grafton County Attorney. She currently serves as an advisory board member for the Grafton and Sullivan County Child Advocacy Center at DHMC, involved in initiates to expand Sexual Assault Resource Teams in Grafton County, the prosecution representative on the state-wide committee for Justice Involved Veterans, a member of the protocol review committees for the Adult Sexual Assault Protocols and Human Trafficking Protocols, a member of the NH Attorney General’s Commission to Combat Human Trafficking and an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University and White Mountain Community College.