When someone is accused of a sex crime, they often receive a slap on the wrist or are released without consequence.
When billionaire pedophile Jeffery Epstein’s recent arrest for new criminal sex charges was splashed across the news, many were surprised to learn that Epstein was previously charged for sex trafficking but was given a “sweetheart” plea deal that granted him immunity for federal charges and only required him to register as a sex offender.
Epstein’s case, however, showed that whether they involve billionaires or ordinary people, sex crime cases have wildly different outcomes. While some end up in convictions, others end up in plea deals or end up at risk of becoming dropped if and when they are reported.
“Pleas are deeply, deeply common,” said Laura Dunn, a victim’s rights attorney in Washington, D.C. who has been advocating against sexual assault for over 15 years. “They are found whether the case is tried at the criminal, civil or campus level.”
Dunn describes the discretion of the criminal justice system as highly subjective.
“Every state has its own system to investigate and prosecute sex crimes,” she said.“The state decides to allow direction, and plaintiffs must often be their own advocates in terms of what charges they want to bring and/or what plea deal is reached.”
Alexandra Suzan Brown, a 20-year-old office administrator from Bowie, Texas, told her family in 2017 that she was abused by her grandfather at a young age. This sparked criminal proceedings that she says dragged on with little information getting back to her from prosecutors.
“We wouldn’t hear from the DA for months at a time and whenever we would try to call for information, they would say that they would get back with us,” she said.
Brown said that because she was a minor when the abuse occurred, police and prosecutors called her parents instead of her.
“I felt like I had a voice when talking to my parents about what I wanted, but not so much with the DA,” she said
Though she wanted to see her grandfather face jailtime and was told that he too preferred jail over being registered as a sex offender, Brown said the family was told it would be easier to prosecute the case with probation and forcing the accused to register as a sex offender in a plea deal.
“If I remember correctly, she tried for jail time in the first round of plea offers, but then didn’t offer it again,” Brown said of the Texas DA.
In civil cases against alleged abusers, the burden falls to the plaintiff to prove her case. Damages are the outcome of a civil lawsuit although the cases must meet civil standards, which is interpreted narrowly, Dunn says this is because states and courts do not typically want to deal with a lot of lawsuits.
Sexual assault survivor Rianna McGee, an 18-year-old student from Havertown, Pennsylvania, reported to police that she was assaulted at 16 by her ex-boyfriend. When she was interviewed by police, she said she was grilled about her story over and over.
“When I was initially interviewed, they tried so hard to prove I was lying,” she said “They kept saying ‘if you’re lying in any way you have to let us know.’ ”
She said prosecutors wouldn’t charge her abuser with rape because he was only 4 years older than her. “Which has nothing to do with what he did to me,” she said.
In the U.S., it is up to the states to decide how a sex crime is investigated and prosecuted. The definitions of sexual misconduct and acts of sexual violence have changed over time, and victims are not always able to process this during the time of investigation.
“If there were a department being able to take smaller cases with broader guidance, that would push society along.” said Dunn.
Title IX, passed in 1972, was the first major legislation to cover an umbrella of sexual misconduct at the federal level. During the Obama Administration, the definition of sexual misconduct was broadened under Title IX. Currently, however, Betsy Devos is working on changing the regulations that would ultimately narrow the language for what qualifies as sexual harassment deserving of an investigation or variable consequences.
Dunn says a campus has a reputation to uphold and a legal test is a balancing act.
“It includes the interest of the parties, erroneous deprivation and costs to prevent violation.” She said.
Title IX requires equity, which means that both parties, the victim and the accused, are to be treated the same during an investigation.
“If the perp can look at evidence, the victim can look at evidence,” said Dunn. “There is no due process to a speedy trial, it is a balancing act. It is the victim versus the accused versus the institution. There’s less legal options.”
Tatiana Lyons, a 23-year-old student from Minnesota was assaulted as a freshman in college by someone who did not attend her university. She went through campus proceedings to address her allegations, but the school ultimately found the accused not responsible.
“I do not feel as though I had insight into the process because they kept postponing with little to no communication,” she said. Lyons said she wrote to the school investigators to lay out her concerns but ultimately got no response.
“I don’t think they cared about whether or not they did a good job actually investigating my case.” said Lyons.
On the flip side of the coin, many people who are accused of sexual violence on campuses can also be mistreated during investigations which leads to what Laura Dunn calls a “delicate balance.”
“The U.S. set up a system that is meant to fail because it is such a severe consequence to take away someone’s liberty,” She said. “There is unequal footing, due process is very powerful and constitutionally based under the 6th amendment.”
According to Dunn, the help for prevention of “sweet heart” plea deals like Epstein’s and adequate investigation and prosecution in sex crimes would come from the U.S. Constitution.
Dunn believes the solution to sexual misconduct would fall under the Equal Rights Amendment. Originally proposed in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment would not only ensure gender equality and pay equality, it would cover gender-based harassment that turns to sexual violence.
“There are discriminatory patterns on the basis of sex, and sex discrimination includes sexual violence,” she said “International law has requirements to prevent sex discrimination versus state based private party violence cases. Congress can make more laws and protections.”