The Devil in the Details of the Abby Honold Act
It should not have been as difficult as it was for Abby Honold to find justice.
In 2014, Honold was a student at the University of Minnesota. After briefly leaving a football tailgate party with Daniel Drill-Mellum, an acquiantance and fellow student, she was brutally attacked and raped by him in a nearby apartment.
She did everything that people who are harmed are told to do. She reported the rape to police immediately. She was examined by a sexual assault nurse the same day, and gave a statement.
According to that nurse, Honold’s injuries were some of the worst that she had ever seen.
Drill-Mellum, who had previously interned for Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, was immediately arrested and charged with the attack.
Three days later, the Minneapolis Police detective in charge of the investigation told Honold over the phone that he was dumping her case, warning her that if she tried to get it re-opened, she could find herself charged for making false allegations. Drill-Mellum was released, and the charges were dropped.
At issue was the existence of a recording made by Drill-Mellum’s fraternity brothers. They got Honold on the phone the day after the rape, and according to their account, she said over the phone the sex was consensual.
It took Honold another two years, a parallel investigation by the University, an attorney of her own, and two more women to go on record as saying that Drill-Mellum attacked them as well before charges were forthcoming from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office.
In late August of 2016, Drill-Mellum was sentenced to 74 months in prison following a guilty plea to the attacks against Honold and others. He stated in open court that he was responsible for the attacks, and that he was sorry for his actions.
Honold’s gritty odyssey through the criminal justice system gave existence to proposed federal legislation that bears her name — the Abby Honold Act.
Abby Honold demonstrated a singular determination in the face of indifference and hostility to see that Drill-Mellum be held accountable for his crimes.
For this, she is unquestionably a heroic figure.
Even as the legislation that bears her name threatens to undermine protections meant to keep innocent people out of prison.
“Right now, many police departments do not take rape complaints seriously and victims are often aware of that fact. The result is that rapists, in many jurisdictions, are free to continue to victimize with little threat of law enforcement intervention.”
Honold’s case was an anomaly, but not in the sense that her quest was so arduous. Rather, it was an anomaly only in that her attacker was held accountable at all.
Most rape goes unreported to authorities. According to most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, fewer than one out of four rapes are reported. Of those that are reported, many don’t make it past the investigative stage, with police often concluding that they are unfounded. It is estimated that approximately one rape out of a hundred leads to a conviction.
Corey Yung, a law professor who has studied these problems told me that “when police fail to investigate rape cases, that discourages reporting of rape. The decision to not report is then used to discredit rape victims. When rape victims lose credibility that is used as an excuse to not investigate rape cases. And so on. Right now, many police departments do not take rape complaints seriously and victims are often aware of that fact. The result is that rapists, in many jurisdictions, are free to continue to victimize with little threat of law enforcement intervention.”
Yung has estimated that between 1995 and 2012, approximately one million investigations into complaints of forcible rape were shrugged off by those charged with investigating them.
The reasons for this are complex, but as opposed to one-off bad actors, often boil down to systemic failures within police departments. For example, a deposition from an ongoing lawsuit against the city of Memphis documents systemic breakdowns within the Memphis Police Department that resulted in understaffing amongst sex crimes investigators, low morale, and administrative failure that translated — in more than one instance — to substantiated reports of rape being closed without further review.
Enter the Abby Honold Act. Introduced in both the federal House and Senate, it establishes training programs for law enforcement and other agencies that respond to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Act’s main impetus is to foster the implementation of trauma-informed responses to such cases by way of establishing grants for training. Despite undeniably good intentions, the devil — as is often the case — is in the details.
The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interivew, or FETI, is credited as being the key that unlocked the prosecution of Daniel Drill-Mellum, and is amongst the training programs that is poised to benefit from the legislation.
FETI bills itself as a trauma-informed interview technique developed by Russell Strand — a retired military investigator who now runs Strand Squared, LLC — formerly SHIFT, LLC — and is in the business of providing training in FETI to law enforcement, SANE specialists, and others for a price.
Despite a lack of scientific training, Strand claims to bring to bear the “neurobiology of trauma” to investigative practices.
In some of his presentations, his lack of scientific chops shows. In one presentation on sex offenders, for example, he makes the remarkable claim that 561 “sex offenders” had more than 195,000 victims. The study he cites for the proposition, however, indicates no such thing, and also included acts which we now would not regard as “sex offending” (e.g., homosexuality, “sadism, “masochism,” and “transsexualism,” to name a few categories of human sexuality that were considered deviant for the study’s purposes).
Either Strand had read the study for the dramatic point that he made about sex offenders writ large, disregarding its context to underscore his point, or he did not read the study, and simply relied on others’ reports. Neither conclusion bodes well for the reliability of someone casting themselves as a conduit for the application of complex neuro-scientific research into criminal justice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, FETI appears to have never been subject to empirical testing according to its website. In a 2015 report to the United States Armed Services Committee, the United States Air Force declined to adopt FETI as its interview technique, citing the reports of several psychiatrists who evaluated FETI and found mutliple problems with it. At one training session, instructors had a military investigator recount her own rape and traumatization before a largely male crowd of her colleagues, much to the horror of Air Force observers.
Despite these problems, FETI is in use in a large number of jurisdictions, and has been used in securing convictions where defendants challenged its admissibility on scientific grounds.
Pseudoscience in the courtroom has a long and storied history, and FETI may be the latest trendy iteration. Rules of evidence, meant to prevent cases from being decided on such a basis, have often failed — sometimes spectacularly — and meant decades in prison (or worse) for innocent people.
For all that can be said about FETI, it, ironically, appears to have made no difference at all in Honold’s case.
As reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, it was not the detective’s failure to appreciate the impact of the neurobiology of trauma that made the difference, but rather a much more basic fact: the detective who subsequently threatened to charge Honold apparently failed to seriously review the recording made by Drill-Mellum’s fraternity brothers. If he had, he would have learned that the word “consensual” was mumbled on their side of of the call, and went unheard by Honold. Had the Minneapolis Police Department investigated Drill-Mellum’s past, as University investigators did, they would have learned that similar allegations were leveled against him previously by other women.
The state, nevertheless, seems adept at parlaying these basic failures into justifications for expansions of power, or erosion of constitutional protections for criminal defendants, and more. The investigation of the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling, for example, is a textbook case of this phenomenon.
The prospect of pseudoscientific theories related to memory ought to be especially concerning, in our current era, given the resurgence in popularity of the concepts around memory that have led to some of the worst excesses of the past.
The mission of reforming police practices to make them more effective and sensitive to the realities of rape and those harmed by it is an unassailable good. To do so by undermining a commitment to evidence-based practices and the rights of the accused is not to ameliorate tragedy, but — as our history has shown — threatens only to compound it with different kinds.