A prosecutor’s duties are to seek truth and justice, protect victims and hold offenders accountable, and ensure that guilt does not escape nor innocence suffer.28 These duties, combined with our position in the criminal justice system, make us perfectly situated to assume a leadership role in the effort to improve our criminal justice system’s response to sexual violence as a whole. In furtherance of our mission as prosecutors in these cases, we collaborate with law enforcement, healthcare providers, victim advocates, and allied professionals (who may be part of a multidisciplinary team) to coordinate efforts and close gaps in the system. We also leverage specialized resources and training opportunities, and implement promising new practices while refining established ones. See Exhibit 1-1 below.29
1.2 Core Principles
Exhibit 1-1: Core Principles Guiding Best Practices in Sexual Assault Prosecutions
Fully acknowledging that trauma is an individual response to physically or emotionally harmful events, we interact with victims in a manner that minimizes re-traumatization and maximizes their engagement with the criminal justice system.30 This approach recognizes the offender’s responsibility for the victim’s trauma, aids in identifying and interpreting of evidence, and assists juries in understanding the effects of trauma.
Appreciating the central role victims play in the judicial process, we consider their needs throughout the process. The best possible case outcomes holds the offender responsible and accounts for the victim’s history, experience, and perspective, as well as the impact of the criminal justice process on them and their family, school or workplace, and community.
Recognizing that offenders purposefully, knowingly, and intentionally target victims whom they believe they can assault and impugn in an effort to avoid the consequences of their conduct, we persistently focus on the offender’s actions and intent and oppose defense tactics to deflect the focus on to the victim. An offender-focused approach is driven by an accurate and unbiased analysis of a case and applicable law, and a thorough understanding of offender conduct and offender-victim dynamics. The rights of crime victims are always protected to the best of the prosecutor’s ability.
Research has shown that a system working collaboratively to provide a coordinated response will encourage more victims to access services and participate in the process, more effectively hold offenders accountable, and help improve victim and community safety. Collaboration enables prosecutors and allied professionals to share resources, educate one another, evaluate and refine their practices on a continual basis, adapt in response to emerging issues, and ensure the sustainability of their practices.
Prosecutors must understand offender-victim dynamics in various types of sexual assault cases, as well as assumptions and misconceptions widely held by both laypeople and professionals. Specialized investigative practices provide enhanced knowledge and require greater skill to uncover relevant and probative evidence, while keeping victims engaged throughout the process. Specialized trial expertise provides enhanced knowledge and requires greater skill to explain common gaps in evidence and counter deeply entrenched myths and assumptions about victim credibility – including how victims respond to trauma and what victimization looks like. Specialized prosecution units promote the development of such expertise, provide access to focused training, and present opportunities for collaboration with law enforcement and community partners.31
Prosecutorial decisions must be driven by the most current and accurate scientific, sociological, and legal research. Innovative practices to improve responses to sexual violence must be research-informed and implemented to determine their true value. Where effective, these practices should be sustained, reevaluated, and refined for improvement and ongoing relevance to changing conditions
Improving the overall response to sexual violence requires the assessment of key elements of our practice through performance management. How do we determine if a best practice is truly effective? How can we measure our own progress in improving our practice? While conviction rates have historically been used as the primary measure of “success,” they are neither a reliable nor meaningful measure of it. A performance management system that tracks the implementation of best practices, solicits victim feedback, views case outcomes through the lens of case complexity, analyzes and reports data, and measures progress against performance targets ensures that prosecutors’ offices are meeting victim and community needs and achieving justice.
28 See Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935).
29 These principles can be promoted formally, through use of written protocols, or informally, by simply incorporating them into practice and promoting them through informal training and mentoring of newly-assigned prosecutors.
30 See Viktoria Kristiansson, AEquitas, Campus-Related Crimes of Sexual Violence: Trial Packet for Pennsylvania Judges 18 (2016) (citing Rebecca Campbell, et al., Responding to Sexual Assault Victims’ Medical and Emotional Needs: A National Study of the Services Provided by SANE Programs, 29(5) Res. in Nursing & Health 384 (2006)).
31 See Jennifer Long & John Wilkinson, The Benefits of Specialized Prosecution Units in Domestic and Sexual Violence Cases, 8 Strategies in Brief, 1 (December 2011). available at: https://aequitasresource.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Benefits_of_Specialized_Prosecution_Units_in_Domestic_and_Sexual_Violence_Cases_Issue_8.pdf.