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«Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners* By ...»

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Exhibit. Logistic Regression Results for Prosecutors’ Decision to File Charges for Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners

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Some commentators contend that these inconsistent study results reflect a failure to differentiate between aggravated and simple rapes or between cases that involve strangers and nonstrangers. They argue that victim characteristics come into play primarily in the “less serious,” simple rapes—that is, cases in which the victim and the suspect are acquainted, the suspect did not use a weapon, and the victim did not suffer collateral injury. Although this proposition is consistent with previous research that explores the effect of legally irrelevant factors on decisionmaking by juries and judges and with anecdotal evidence regarding prosecutorial charging decisions, it is not supported by empirical research designed to test its applicability to charging decisions in sexual assault cases. As noted above, such studies generally conclude that the effect of victim characteristics is not conditioned by the nature of the case or by the relationship between the victim and the suspect.

The current study suggests that these results may reflect the fact that researchers typically classify the relationship between the victim and the suspect in only two categories: strangers and nonstrangers.

Doing so ignores the diversity in these relationships and, as Decker (1993, p. 585) asserts, “mask[s] important within-group differences.” The nonstranger category, which includes both close and distant relationships, is particularly problematic; it includes victims and suspects who are intimate partners, relatives, good friends, and casual acquaintances. Although consent is more likely to be the defense in each type of nonstranger case than in cases that involve strangers, it does not necessarily follow that victim characteristics play an identical role in each type of case. This study demonstrates that cases that involve intimate partners are qualitatively different from those that involve friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Therefore, future research should abandon the stranger/nonstranger dichotomy and use more refined measures of the victim-suspect relationship.

Implications for Practitioners The study’s results have important policy implications. The relationship between the victim and suspect was found to have no effect on the likelihood of charging: Prosecutors were no more likely to file charges whether the victim and suspect were acquaintances, relatives, or intimate partners than if the victim and suspect were strangers. This finding clearly contradicts assertions that sexual assaults that involve acquaintances are not regarded as “real rapes” (Estrich, 1987) and that women victimized by these crimes are not regarded as “genuine victims” (LaFree, 1989).

This result may be attributed to the rape law reforms enacted during the past three decades. Beginning in the mid-1970s, most States adopted reforms designed to shift the focus in a rape case from the victim’s character and behavior to the offender’s behavior (see Spohn and Horney, 1992). The most common reforms included changes in the definition of rape, elimination of the resistance and corroboration requirements, and enactment of rape shield laws, which were designed to preclude testimony concerning the victim’s sexual history. As Spohn and Horney (1992) note, these reforms were designed primarily to increase the odds of successful prosecution in cases in which the victim and the suspect were acquainted and the suspect claimed that the victim consented. Although research evaluating the impact of the rape law reforms generally concludes that the statutory changes did not produce the widespread instrumental changes that reformers anticipated, there is evidence that the III–5–8 Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners reforms did encourage arrests and prosecutions in borderline cases. This study’s finding that prosecutors were no more likely to screen out cases involving acquaintances and intimate partners than cases involving strangers is consistent with other research on this point.

However, this study also found that legally irrelevant victim characteristics did influence the decision to charge in cases in which the victim and the suspect were acquaintances, relatives, or intimate partners.

In these types of cases, prosecutors’ anticipation of a consent defense and downstream orientation toward judges and juries apparently leads them to scrutinize more carefully the victim’s character and behavior. Evidence that challenges the victim’s credibility or fosters a belief that she was not entirely blameless increases uncertainty about the outcome of the case and thus reduces the odds of prosecution. Notwithstanding the rape law reforms promulgated during the past three decades, victim characteristics continue to influence charging decisions in at least some sexual assault cases.

Note * See Spohn, Cassia, and David Holleran. 2001. “Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners,” Justice Quarterly 18: 651–688.

References Albonetti, C. (1986). “Criminality, Prosecutorial Screening, and Uncertainty: Toward a Theory of Discretionary Decision Making in Felony Case Processing.” Criminology, 24, 623–644.

———. (1987). “Prosecutorial Discretion: The Effects of Uncertainty.” Law & Society Review, 21, 291–313.

Black, D. (1976). The Behavior of Law. New York: Academic Press.

Decker, S.H. (1993). “Exploring Victim-Offender Relationships in Homicide: The Role of Individual and Event Characteristics.” Justice Quarterly, 10, 585–612.

Estrich, S. (1987). Real Rape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Frohmann, L. (1991). “Discrediting Victims’ Allegations of Sexual Assault: Prosecutorial Accounts of Case Rejections.” Social Problems, 38, 213–226.

———. (1997). “Convictability and Discordant Locales: Reproducing Race, Class, and Gender Ideologies in Prosecutorial Decisionmaking.” Law & Society Review, 31, 531–555.

Gottfredson, M.R., and Gottfredson, D.M. (1988). Decision-Making in Criminal Justice: Toward the Rational Exercise of Discretion. 2nd ed. New York: Plenum.

Kalven, H., and Zeisel, H. (1966). The American Jury. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Kingsnorth, R.F., MacIntosh, R.C., and Wentworth, J. (1999). “Sexual Assault: The Role of Prior Relationship and Victim Characteristics in Case Processing.” Justice Quarterly, 16, 275–302.

LaFree, G. (1989). Rape and Criminal Justice: The Social Construction of Sexual Assault.

Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Neubauer, D. (1988). America’s Courts and the Criminal Justice System. Pacific Grove, CA:

Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Spohn, C., and Cederblom, J. (1991). “Race and Disparities in Sentencing: A Test of the Liberation Hypothesis.” Justice Quarterly, 8, 305–327.

Spohn, C., and Horney, J. (1992). Rape Law Reform: A Grassroots Revolution and Its Impact.

New York: Plenum.

Stanko, E. (1988). “The Impact of Victim Assessment on Prosecutor’s Screening Decisions: The Case of the New York County District Attorney’s Office.” In G. Cole (ed.), Criminal Justice: Law and Politics. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

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