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RiverTown investigates: The aftermath of surviving sexual assault

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By Katie Nelson and Rebecca Mariscal

At 15, K. Coleman was left in the snow on the side of Highway 61 in Cottage Grove, bloody and bruised after being raped by three men.

She experienced the brutal horror again years later when, at 19, she was forced by a group of strangerS with weapons into an unknown home.

"I just started crying. 'I'm not here by choice, I need to get out,' and it didn't really phase him," she said. "So he assaulted me, but he kept saying, 'I'm sorry.'"

Twice in five years Coleman found herself reporting rapes, talking to police and nurses, feeling lost and alone.

Coleman, who asked RiverTown reporters not to use her first name, said those who responded did their jobs, but weren't properly trained.

"Nobody was like, 'Let's give you a day,'" Coleman said. "It was questions: questions from the nurses, questions from the doctor, questions from the police, questions from your parents, questions from these investigators and these investigators and these investigators. You can barely even process what's just happening, and then somebody's questioning you. It's almost like you freeze."

Here and now

The processes and public opinions around sexual assaults have changed since Coleman's experiences, but they remain complex cases from reporting to prosecution.

In October 2017, nearly 25 years after Coleman's assault, North Hudson resident Molly Richardson was sexually assaulted. She reported the incident to the police, and began with questioning and a written statement.

Hudson Detective Traci Hall said this process has adapted to be more conscious of a survivor's trauma. Responding officers will get enough information to preserve the evidence, and then one formal interview is conducted after the victim has a night or two of sleep to settle down mentally and emotionally.

"The poor victim would have to be telling the story four, five times," Hall said of past procedure. "Where we're trying to minimize that as much as possible."

Capt. Randy McAlister said similar to Hudson, his Cottage Grove department and other law enforcement agencies have been using trauma-informed techniques such as open-ended questions and active listening.

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"If someone is traumatized, they might not recall all the details like we want them to, so give them space," McAlister said.

With more and more training requirements passed down from the Minnesota Legislature, McAlister said it can be hard for departments to prioritize one kind of training against another.

"We have to find someplace to plug that in," McAlister said. "There's only so many officers and hours in a day."

Even with these changes, Richardson, like Coleman, found the process overwhelming.

"Everything was happening so fast, it was kind of going over my head," Richardson said.

Police connected Richardson with the St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART.

There Richardson went through the events again.

Courtney Bouthilet, SART examiner, said the organization tries to be sensitive to a survivor's trauma.

"(We listen) to that story, knowing it might be in bits and pieces and that it won't always make sense," she said.

Richardson said she appreciated that the visit focused on her and how she was feeling, rather than asking about the perpetrator.

Allina Forensic Nursing program manager Karine Zakroczymski said for the entirety of the department's 18-year existence examiners have been conscious of a patient's trauma, but were recently officially trained in trauma-informed interviewing.

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"We have always been a little bit gentler in our approach," she said.

During an examination nurses determine where the patient is injured or from where biological evidence such as saliva or semen can be collected.

Depending on patient wants or needs, the nurse then treats any injuries and administers a rape kit. Nurses check for and provide medication for sexually transmitted diseases, check for substances in blood or urine samples, and photograph injuries to possibly be used by prosecutors.

Zakroczymski said DNA can now be collected up to 10 days after the assault. Richardson visited SART just a few days after her assault, but decided not to have DNA collected.

"I was freaking out," Richardson said. "I didn't believe they could find anything and if they did, how would that actually help my case when it's my word against his word?"

Reluctance to report

Looking at numbers alone, rapes and sexual assaults in St. Croix County appear to have skyrocketed.

SART completed 80 medical exams in 2017 and its advocates saw between 130 and 160 people. The amount of survivors served has increased for the last 16 years.

Bouthilet said that doesn't mean more sexual assaults are happening, rather that more people are seeking help after one occurs.

About half the survivors who come to SART aren't sure what they want to do, Bouthilet said.

"We need to recognize how difficult it is for these women and men to come forward," Zakroczymski said.

Richardson was initially unsure about reporting because she had been drinking when she was assaulted. Once she did report, the officer told her that didn't matter.

During a sexual assault investigation, Hall said officers are not concerned if survivors were involved with something else illegal at the time such as drugs or underage drinking.

Officers can tell when people are holding something back, Hall said, and being deceptive about anything could be harmful in the courtroom. She encourages anyone reporting to be truthful about everything, including the actions prior to the assault.

Other survivors hesitate to report because they are don't want to face the perpetrator, because they are embarrassed or feel ashamed.

Survivor stigma

After reporting the incident Richardson said the perpetrator was arrested that night and then out on bond the next day.

His arrest was reported in the Hudson Star-Observer, and prompted a social media backlash. Commenters latched onto the fact that Richardson had been drinking, saying she was lying or just regretted what she'd done.

"When you're saying he's innocent until proven guilty and then you're calling me a liar, isn't that you doing what you're saying not to do?" Richardson said.

Sexual assault victims deal with responses that other crime victims would never see, Bouthilet said. Even with the progress made, both Zakroczymski and Bouthilet said society still can be unaccepting.

"If anyone called and said, 'Hey, my house was just burglarized. I came home and there's stuff thrown all over the place, my TV's missing and my car was stolen,' no one's going to say, 'Well, you're making that up' or 'You were at the bar, what did you expect was going to happen? You need to stay home and not have a life,'" Bouthilet said.

"With sexual assault, it's the complete opposite."

Richardson said she, like other survivors, would have nothing to gain from making false charges.

"Why would I go through all this just to lie?" she said.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput asks juries the same thing, questioning why someone would want to go through what he calls the "emotional meat grinder" that is reporting.

"It's not like she's going to get a big payday, it's not like she enjoys the limelight. It produces a lot of shame among victims," he said.

These preconceived notions on sexual assault — and the blame that is often assigned to victims — is something that prosecutors have to be aware of in the courtroom because it can affect the verdict.

"When she says, 'This guy raped me' — typically in a date rape situation — and he says, 'No it was consensual; she wanted it. She had a few drinks,'" Orput said. "When juries hear those, our experience is we lose about half of those cases."

Hall said when bringing charges these "he said, she said" cases require a lot more circumstantial evidence compared to physical evidence.

"The DNA can be a nail in the coffin, so to speak, to prove it," St. Croix County District Attorney Mike Nieskes said. "It also can be just one part of the whole puzzle."

Nieskes said one of the most common problems prosecutors face is the belief that scientific evidence is immediate and always gives a clear answer, like in crime shows on TV.

"The reality is it doesn't work that fast and the answer isn't as clear cut," he said.

All juries in all types of cases have perceived biases, Nieskes said, and prosecutors have to take those out of the equation. Orput said he tries to make juries believe in the survivors the way he does.

Recent movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have led to a sea of change in the understanding of sexual assault and harassment. More people are coming forward, Orput said, with higher hopes they'll be believed.

"That's been a really public message that's been out there that has really brought some changes," Orput said.

Still Washington County hasn't seen an uptick in cases.

"But I think victims are much more open to the idea of saying something," Orput said.

Richardson said the movements are great, but she feels the real issue lies with the justice system.

Going to trial

Investigations into sexual assaults can take time, often longer than survivors may expect.

"That's a process and that can take a little while," St. Croix County Victim Witness Coordinator Pam Bellrichard said. "And there sits the victim."

Bellrichard works with investigators to meet survivors during that gap if possible. A part of the district attorney's office, she provides victims with full information on the court process.

Sexual assault cases can take anywhere from nine months to a year, from arrest to sentencing, compared to six months for most felony cases.

The longer time frame is for a variety of reasons Nieskes said. The defense is often meticulous when facing the consequences for their clients.

Court cases start at the district attorney's office, where a charging decision is made.

Nieskes asks law enforcement to send in all their cases, even if they don't believe they have a chance with them. Referrals come into his office that he believes, but can't prove. Then he has to make the decision not to press charges.

If he thinks he can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, Nieskes said he will always bring charges, though he's willing to accept that a jury won't always agree with him.

Orput's position with his prosecutors is to believe survivors, though he does realize that charging someone can have an effect on their life.

"These cases, from both sides, have to be done right," he said.

Orput has chosen not to pursue certain cases. He says he doesn't want to put a victim through the process if he knows the verdict will be not guilty.

Unlike most crimes, Orput said sex crimes do not require corroboration under law to be proven.

"Typically if she said it happened, then essentially it happened," he said. "The problem though is juries really struggle with that."

Though it's not required, Orput said the county has worked to train officers to get as much corroborating evidence as they possibly can.

Orput said he is more aggressive than other county attorneys who insist on more corroboration than he does. When Nieskes makes a charging decision, he said he has to look at the strength of the case.

"It still comes down to the ability to be able to have a believable victim and corroboration of the investigation," Nieskes said.

Ahead of her trial, Richardson met with the St. Croix County District Attorney's Office to discuss the case. She was told the likelihood of the case going to trial was slim. Two possible deals with the defendant were presented by the prosecutor.

"He wasn't asking for my opinion," she said. "He was kind of just saying this is what's going to happen."

The court process can be emotional and difficult for survivors, who often feel they're being made to relive the assault, Nieskes said.

"I try to warn them that it may feel intrusive because you're going to have to go into a courtroom and tell a bunch of strangers how powerless you felt," Orput said.

Though Richardson's case didn't go in front of a jury, the preliminary hearings were still difficult for her. She was too overwhelmed to be at the first two hearings, making it to the courthouse stairs for the second one before panicking. She had a SART advocate attend the rest with her.

"I kind of just wanted to show up to show I can, I'm not scared," Richardson said. "But I was terrified."

Bellrichard often attends court for survivors who don't want to be there. When survivors do want to be present, she works to prepare them for seeing the defendant, and seeing others supporting him.

Richardson listened as the defendant's lawyer presented her case as just two young adults having sex, all the while feeling like she wasn't being heard. While she doesn't know if a jury trial would have been different, Richardson said testifying would have at least given her a voice.

"With this I kind of feel like I was silenced," she said.

She was finally given that voice by writing a victim impact statement. Bellrichard said these statements are incredibly powerful for victims.

In hers Richardson spoke in part directly to the defendant. She told him the effect that night had on her, and continues to have on her life, how she's irritable all the time now, how she struggles.

"I basically said he ruined who I was," Richardson said.

A vast majority of cases, like Richardson's, don't go in front of a jury, Nieskes said, instead ending in plea bargains.

Some defendants will plead guilty, Orput said, but facing potentially serious penalties in pleading some prefer to go to trial.

"We don't like negotiating those cases down," he said.

Richardson's case ended in a diversion agreement, an outcome commonly seen in lower-level offenses like drug possession. The 12-month agreement places conditions on the alleged perpetrator that include a psychosexual evaluation followed by counseling if recommended, an alcohol abuse assessment, complete sobriety, reporting to a diversion program and not committing any other crimes. If the conditions are followed, the defendant could avoid a criminal charge.

"I kind of called it a big cop-out," Richardson said.

If the defendant breaks any requirement of the agreement, he could be charged with a felony.

"That part I'm happy about," Richardson said.

But overall Richardson was disappointed by the outcome. She said she felt a disconnect between the hope law enforcement and others gave her through the reporting process, and then the result when her case actually went to court. She said working with the district attorney's office was the first time in the process she felt someone wasn't on her side.

Search for justice

Having a defendant admit responsibility is the best thing Nieskes can do for the survivors.

"They rationalize the situation and what they could have done to help themselves," Nieskes said.

Survivors don't always get that admission. Hearing that "not guilty" can be a painful hurdle, Orput said.

"All they hear is that 12 people didn't believe them," Bellrichard said.

But a not guilty verdict doesn't invalidate what happened to the survivor, Hall said.

"Just because we don't get a conviction, doesn't mean she wasn't sexually assaulted," Hall said. "It just means we weren't able to prove it."

Orput said he tells survivors that even if they lose, they win.

"We're going to let (the perpetrator) know the next time you do it, you get to go through this again and again and again," he said. "I don't think you're going to want to accept that risk, so either you stop that bullshit behavior, or do it again and next time I might get lucky and win."

Even when they do win, Bellrichard said survivors are sometimes disappointed with the outcome. Justice can mean different things to different people. Some are satisfied with probation and counseling, others want jail time.

Richardson said she didn't come close to getting justice.

"He's going to think he got away with it," she said.

Bellrichard tells survivors they won't find justice through the punishment of the defendant.

"You get it through your own personal healing," she said.

Richardson is still struggling to find that healing. Talking to friends has helped, and she appreciates their support. She's been to counseling sessions, but Richardson said she has a hard time being open. She doesn't know if a heavier sentence would make healing easier.

"But at least I would have some sort of justice," Richardson said.

Though she didn't get the justice she wanted, Richardson still encourages others to come forward and report, "even though it sucks and it's hard."

Moving forward

Coleman never pressed charges for the rapes all those years ago. Police tried to convince her to do it, but she was scared the men would kill her if she testified. Police and nurses pushed for more information, but the whole process was startling for her.

"I don't see any malicious intent there," Coleman said. "It's just the way things are."

Things are better now, Coleman said. As a trauma therapist she works in part with people who have experienced the same trauma she did.

Partnering with law enforcement for her job, Coleman said she she has noticed the improvements made, and she she hopes institutions will continue to move forward to better serve survivors like herself and Richardson.

Richardson has a harder time being hopeful.

"I don't really believe right now that things are going to get better," she said. "But they have to get better."

Maureen McMullen contributed to this report.