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Why so many rape investigations are dropped before a suspect is charged

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Written by: Ching-Yu Huang, Lecturer in Psychology, Bournemouth University

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Even after 15 years serving as a police officer, Fay still vividly remembers the first rape investigation she took part in. The survivor, a 17-year-old girl, had been raped by a man in his twenties at a party. A video-recorded interview and a medical examination took place within six hours. The suspect was swiftly located and arrested.

The next day, the survivor withdrew the allegation, traumatised and frightened of repercussions, feeling that she was not strong enough to see the case through. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time Fay saw this happen.

In the year ending March 2018, just 5% of total recorded rapes were assigned a charge or summons, according to the Office for National Statistics.

New data, uncovered by The Guardian from freedom of information requests, shows that even after a referral to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the prosecution rate for rape cases in England and Wales is disconcertingly low and decreasing. Between April and September 2018, charges were brought in 37% of cases referred to the CPS, compared to 62% in 2013-14.

This high proportion of “attrition” – cases getting dropped during an investigation – may stem from survivors withdrawing their allegations, or the police ending the investigation.
Research has found that rapes involving acquaintances and intimate partners are more vulnerable to attrition.



Timing and testimony

Many factors can make it challenging for both the survivors and the investigators to proceed with an investigation. A delay in somebody reporting a rape can cause difficulties, for example. This delay makes it difficult to secure forensic evidence, such as semen, and any physical injuries such as bruises or scratches may have healed or faded. In our own, ongoing research, in which we’re analysing more than 120 failed rape investigations, we’re finding that rape survivors waited an average of nearly two weeks to come forward to the police, regardless of whether they knew their perpetrators.

A crucial part of any investigation into an alleged rape is a video-recorded, police interview. Physical evidence can prove that the intercourse happened, but not the absence of consent, so it’s important to establish this in an interview. We’re finding that a delay between reporting the rape and the interview can have an impact on whether or not allegations are withdrawn – and really reduce the chance of prosecution. Human memory for details declines with time, yet the police are highly reliant on a survivor’s ability to recall specific details when assessing the credibility of their testimony.

While all cases of domestic violence must be reviewed by the CPS, there’s no current requirement regarding rape cases. That means only cases in which the police believe there is sufficient evidence are referred to prosecutors. However, the guidelines for making this referral state that where there has been a delay in reporting and where there is no evidence of a lack of consent, securing a charge will be difficult.

Victim credibility

Assessing the credibility of the testimony has always been a thorny topic both in research and for the police. Bias, such as investigators’ unfounded beliefs on a particular suspect’s involvement, can consciously or unconsciously affect how they evaluate testimony and even their interpretation of DNA evidence. For example, one study showed that when examining a mixed sample of DNA from a gang rape, a forensic DNA examiner believing a particular suspect was involved was more likely to conclude that the suspect’s DNA was present than a forensic examiner who did not have such a prior belief.

Unfortunately, victims of rape are often faced with harsh judgements and can be incorrectly blamed for what happened to them. Their dress, racial background, and even attractiveness can influence how they are assessed by those involved in legal proceedings.

In another ongoing study, we’re finding that jurors are also more likely to judge rape victims who know the perpetrator as less credible and more responsible for the incidents. This helps to explain why rape allegations against partners or acquaintances are less likely to proceed in the criminal justice system.

Seeing investigations through

There have been some improvements in the quality of rape investigations in the past few decades. Frontline police officers are now trained to collect physical evidence promptly. A network of almost 50 Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) around the UK now also give survivors more control over how and when they make a report of rape.

Still, rape attrition remains a complicated issue and examining when and how victims drop out of the investigation process could provide ways to reduce it. We need to understand why survivors delay reporting to the police, and lower any barriers for this. Promoting general awareness of SARCs may be beneficial, as would making sure the police have the resources they need to record video interviews with rape survivors as quickly as possible after they report a rape. Early review of rape cases by the CPS could also help to ensure that evidence is gathered as comprehensively as possible.

Reforms in rape investigation have undoubtedly given survivors more control over when and how they can step forward. We now must focus on what happens after this to provide support and confidence in the earliest stages of investigation to assist their access to justice.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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