Sexual assault cases tough enough

Kate Fagan and Jane McManus discuss whether the sexual assault allegations Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is facing should affect his Heisman campaign.

It's been almost two weeks since the state of Florida decided to launch an investigation to determine whether to pursue sexual assault charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston -- who leads the Heisman Trophy race and is on the verge of guiding the Seminoles to the national championship game.

Regardless of how this unfortunate matter concludes -- whether Winston is charged, not charged, ultimately innocent or guilty -- serious questions need to be raised about the Tallahassee police department. In fact, a full investigation might be in order.

Of the many damning allegations levied by the accuser's family attorney in the first public statement last week, among the most troubling are the ones aimed at the Tallahassee police, who seemingly failed to conduct anything close to a comprehensive investigation once the complaint against Winston was filed in December 2012.

For those who are unaware, the process of reporting a sexual assault can be extraordinarily humiliating because you are forced not only to relive the attack but also sometimes to prove your credibility by answering extremely intrusive questions.

I know because I've been through it.

When I was a preteen, a family friend tried to rape me. My mother and I immediately reported the incident to the police. I was asked whether I was a virgin and whether I had pre-existing sexual contact with the man who attempted to rape me -- even though he was in his early 30s. The police also checked my nails to see whether there were any signs I'd marked my attacker because I had escaped by fighting him.

I was lucky. To this day, I don't know how I escaped. Only God knows for sure. But I never had to endure a rape kit -- a thorough medical exam potential rape victims must undergo so authorities can determine whether physical evidence suggests an assault was committed -- because I wasn't penetrated by my attacker.

But the police gave me little confidence that my attacker would ever answer for what he did. And I often have wondered over the years how many girls and women he had attacked because, given what I experienced, I would be stunned if I were the only one.

The police said they would question my attacker, but reiterated that it was essentially his word against mine. It also didn't help that his family didn't believe me and they were prepared to defend him vigorously.

My mother, also a rape survivor, also wasn't optimistic that any charges would be filed, but she wanted a report on record.

Far as I know, we never heard from the police again.

That was in the mid-1980s, and, since then, there has been more awareness and education about sexual assault and how to treat possible victims.

Although it appears the Tallahassee police could still use further education.

Reportedly, Tallahassee detective Scott Angulo told Winston's accuser that Tallahassee is a "big football town" and the accuser should "think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."

If Angulo really said that to a possible rape victim, it is not only unprofessional but reprehensible.

The investigators possibly have done a disservice to both the accuser and the accused. Even worse, their alleged actions -- or inaction -- could wind up exaggerating misperceptions about sexual assault and sending the message to those who come forward with sexual assault complaints that they are better off staying silent.

Sadly, what Angulo allegedly said to Winston's accuser is disturbingly true -- especially if the accusation involves a high-profile athlete.

Not surprisingly, over the past two weeks, there has been an explosion of rumors about the accuser and unverified accounts of what supposedly happened between her and Jameis Winston that night in December. I've already been sent several photos that are reportedly of the accuser, in addition to screen grabs of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

All this information is being circulated rapidly and thus becoming the Internet version of flogging someone in the town square.

"Despite the stereotype, false reports of sexual assault are not typically filed by women trying to 'get back at a boyfriend' or cover up a pregnancy, affair, or other misbehavior," according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "While there are examples of this kind of false report, the vast majority are actually filed by people with serious psychological and emotional problems. In these situations, the person files a false report for the attention and sympathy that they receive."

Let me be perfectly clear: Jameis Winston deserves to be considered innocent until his guilt is proved. If charges are never filed against him or if he is the victim of a false report, this incident should never again be used to question his character, and the police would be well within their rights to pursue charges against the accuser for a false accusation.

But, even as the facts develop, it's fair to use this as an opportunity to examine how sexual assaults are handled by the police, and the misconceptions and stereotypes that persist on this issue.

Between the alleged misconduct of the Tallahassee police -- from unexplained delays in collecting evidence to tipping off Florida State's campus police and Winston's lawyer regarding the nature of the allegation before telling the state attorney -- and the public's stalking of the accuser, if you were someone who had been sexually assaulted, why on earth would you ever come forward?

Many don't already. The National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 67 percent of sexual assaults from 2008 to 2012 were not reported to police.

Of course, not all sexual assault allegations involve a quarterback who is competing for a Heisman and a national title.  

But I wouldn't blame advocates of victims' rights for feeling defeated right now. If nothing ever comes of this, it only will fuel the misconception that women routinely make false rape claims, when only 2-10 percent of sexual assault reports are false, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.  

If charges are filed against Winston, the case will become a public spectacle and the awareness that this issue has gained will be lost within a war of credibility.

It makes you wonder whether the truth can be found without consequence.

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