Violation of Trust

Absent justice: Sex crime victims in Southern Illinois find that police, prosecutors typically do not charge their attackers

He was on top of her with one hand closed around her throat.

When she struggled, he shifted his weight, trapping her, crushing her injured back onto the bed. She screamed, and he pushed a pillow against her broken nose, sending blood down her throat.

Amber Mers abandoned any thoughts of escape. As he raped her, she succumbed to visions of her mother, her daughter — and death. When the attack was over, he told her to sleep. In the dark, quiet Belleville apartment, she lay very still, afraid to stir and wake him.

In the morning, he asked for forgiveness. He wanted to hug her, kiss her.

There was a knock on the front door. Mers saw her chance. She bolted out the back of the house, running barefoot on a chilly February morning in 2006, looking back over her shoulder, fearing he would be right behind her.

She hesitated when she came to a yard where small children were playing. Dried blood had matted her hair. Her blackened eye was swollen nearly shut. She didn’t want to frighten them, but she was desperate. She ran toward them screaming for help.

A 911 call brought an ambulance and Belleville police. In the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Mers, then 26, answered intimate questions about the attack. Her clothing was stuffed into an evidence bag. Her cuts and bruises were photographed. The most private parts of her body were swabbed for evidence.

Mers said she exposed herself to this scrutiny because she wanted justice. But like thousands of sex crime victims, she would be denied. The rape charge against her assailant was dismissed. She never learned why. Todd M. Pinta was allowed to plead guilty to domestic battery and did two years in state prison.

“All I could ever find out is that his lawyer had pictures of scratches I left on him, and that had something to do with the rape charge being dropped,” she said. “Sure, I fought him. As hard as I could. I left marks.”

The attack on Amber Mers was not unusual for its violence or because the rape charge was dropped. It was unusual in that her assailant received any punishment at all.

Like Mers, thousands of women, teenage girls and children in a 32-county area of Southern Illinois told police they were sexually violated by someone they trusted: a friend, an ex-boyfriend or a family member.

Authorities did not prosecute seven out of 10 of these sex crime suspects from 2005-13, even though victims were able to identify their attackers 95 percent of the time, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation.

While national attention has focused on rape on college campuses and in the military, a review of more than 1,000 police reports and 15,000 pages of court records showed that failure to bring sex crime suspects to court was widespread throughout Southern Illinois during the nine-year period ending in 2013, the latest figures available.

The investigation found:

Of 6,744 felony sex crimes reported to police across the region, 70 percent, or 4,721 cases, never made it to a courtroom.

Aggravated sexual abuse — a violent crime that usually targets children — made up at least one in four felony sex crimes reported to police but is not counted in federal and state crime statistics because it doesn’t meet the FBI’s definition of a reportable sex crime. Only sexual assault, or rape, is tracked.

The overall chance that a felony sex crime suspect would go to prison was one in 10. When suspects were prosecuted, the conviction rates generally ranged from 55 to 85 percent.

Some cities with the largest police departments and most investigators had the highest number of felony sex crimes reported but some of the lowest prosecution rates: East St. Louis, 7 percent, Carbondale, 8 percent and Belleville, 18 percent.

Women 18 or older accounted for 31 percent of sex crime victims, according to a review of 1,070 felony police investigative reports. But an analysis of court records showed that adults accounted for only 17 percent of sex crime prosecutions.

The prosecution rate of felony sex crimes in Madison County was more than double that in St. Clair County — 38 to 18 percent, respectively — even though they border one another and are nearly identical in population.

The public doesn’t know about these statistics because no federal or state agency publishes data comparing sex crimes reported to local police to the number that ended up in court in the 32-county region, home to 1.2 million people.

Even police and prosecutors were unaware of the scope of this failure to prosecute, the BND investigation found.

“These numbers point to a surprising and serious situation that needs to be discussed,” said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who took office in 2010. The office prosecuted just 18 percent of felony sex crimes reported to police from 2005-13.

“Whether 5 percent or 95 percent of cases result in prosecution, our goal must always be justice — and where the system falls short, we must continuously strive for improvement,” Kelly said.

While most prosecution rates were low, conviction rates for these types of cases were relatively high throughout the region. Some experts maintain that’s because prosecutors only take cases they are sure they can win.

“They do their work on a case-by-case basis — and their biases about what is a winnable case play out over and over again, and the number of cases that don’t move forward just keep adding up,” said Rebecca Campbell, a professor at Michigan State University’s Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence.

The public relies on annual reports from the FBI through its national Uniform Crime Reporting program to learn the extent of crime in their communities. In Illinois, these reports are published by the State Police titled “Crime in Illinois.” The numbers can be used to determine the total number of rapes reported to a police department, but are considered unreliable for advanced research because departments voluntarily participate in the program with relatively little oversight and no audits. The UCR program does not track prosecutions.

“It’s a really fractured system, and there is no agency that can pull it all together,” said Michael Maltz, a senior scientist at the University of Chicago’s Criminal Justice Research Center. “Judges and prosecutors are very loathe to have anyone looking over their shoulder.”

Mers identified Pinta, a former boyfriend, as her attacker. A review of court records and an inquiry to the state’s attorney’s office failed to produce a reason why the rape charge against Pinta was dropped.

The News-Democrat does not identify the victims of sexual crimes without their permission, but does name suspects who have been charged.

Court records show that Pinta, 35, was charged with raping three women on separate occasions — all former girlfriends — but the only charge that stuck was domestic battery in Mers’ case. He served two years in prison.

In 2008, while Pinta was on parole for beating Mers, a St. Clair County grand jury indicted him on a charge of raping another Belleville woman. The first rape charge came in 2001 in St. Louis. All three sexual assault accusations resulted in formal rape charges that later were dismissed.

Mers, now 35, said when Pinta choked her, tiny blood vessels in her retinas burst, giving her bloodshot eyes. She said she will never forget feeling rage when she saw her reflection in an emergency room mirror: the purple and yellow bruises, a broken facial bone, and her bloody eyes.

When questioned by BND reporters at his job in Sullivan, Mo., where he lives, Pinta denied raping anyone. Since that interview, he has returned to prison on a parole violation from a 2011 burglary conviction in Illinois.

Asked specifically about Mers and the other Belleville woman, he said, “This was about domestic violence. I could get them both to come to dinner tonight. You could take a picture.”

Sex crime victims usually don’t go public when suspects aren’t prosecuted.

In a nationwide survey for the years 2008-12 based on interviews with women who said they were raped, the U.S. Justice Department estimated that 60 percent of these alleged crimes were not reported to police. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported in a 2012 study that 18 percent of women responding said they had been raped. This survey included questions about sexual violence among intimate partners.

Studies published by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that the rate of false rape reports is 2-8 percent.

Arrest data also has been used to track the rate of these crimes among adults and children. But no comprehensive studies tracking felony sex crime prosecutions across a wide area over time existed before the BND’s investigation, experts said.

The BND used public records to determine felony sex crime prosecution rates. The number of felony sex crime prosecutions in the 32 counties was compared to the number of felony sex crime complaints reported by victims to more than 100 police and sheriff’s departments from 2005-13. The information was compiled into a database, which is available on bnd.com.

Kim Lonsway, research director for the non-profit End Violence Against Women International in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said the News-Democrat’s investigation is the first study she was aware of that examines felony sex crimes and prosecutions over time.

“I have never seen such a comprehensive effort to track down what happened to every single report of a sex crime — across so many communities — because this requires looking into all of the dark corners that exist within our criminal justice system,” she said.

“As the Illinois data reveal, a stunningly small percentage of sexual assaults that are reported to police will eventually result in prosecution and conviction, and without meaningful data to portray that grim reality, there is no way for the public to understand the scope of the problem, and no way to hold police departments and prosecutors’ offices accountable.”

Jim Markey, a consultant who spent 30 years with the Phoenix Police Department and served as director of its sex crimes unit, said the low prosecution rates for sex crimes in Southern Illinois are alarming.

“I do not think these numbers should ever be accepted,” he said. “Imagine being a victim and deciding whether you should report it, knowing the probability is that nothing will happen.”

When it comes to prosecuting felony sex crimes in the region’s two largest counties, Madison County outpaced St. Clair County by a greater than 2-1 margin.

With about 270,000 residents each, Madison and St. Clair counties are by far the most populous in Southern Illinois and have about the same number of police officers and prosecutors.

Kelly, the state’s attorney in St. Clair County, and Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons each took office in 2010, so much of their offices’ performance during the nine-year study period occurred under their predecessors.

Neither was aware of his office’s prosecution rates when comparing the number of cases accepted for prosecution to all felony sex crimes reported to local police.

In 2013, Kelly’s office prosecuted about half of the 36 cases it received from police. Prior to that, the St. Clair County state’s attorney’s office prosecuted about one-third of the cases presented to it. The percentage of sex crimes rejected by Madison County prosecutors was not available, but a spokeswoman for the office estimated that about 40 felony sex crimes were turned down per year, usually for lack of evidence.

However, for the cases that were accepted, conviction rates for prosecutions with adult defendants were relatively high. (Rates for juvenile defendants charged with felony sex crimes could not be determined because these files are sealed by state law.)

In St. Clair County, with 21 cases pending, the conviction rate was 69 percent, or 171 cases out of 249. In Madison county, with 30 cases pending, it was 77 percent, or 386 out of 501 cases.

Asked why prosecutors don’t take on more cases, Kelly said: “We want to justly convict the guilty, but more importantly seek as much justice as possible for the public and for victims. That’s what drives us. ... There is no cookie-cutter answer.”

In some cases, Kelly said, accused sex crime suspects may wind up being prosecuted for non-sex crimes such as aggravated battery and unlawful restraint that might not show up in the BND’s investigation. He cited a recent example in which a defendant was tried and convicted of non-sex felonies in a case that also involved rape.

“But absent a huge flood of manpower, particularly in departments dealing with high crime and poverty, we will still not be the best we can be at fighting these kinds of deeply personal and disturbing crimes,” he said.

Gibbons, the Madison County state’s attorney, said, “These cases are some of the most difficult to charge and prove in court. It takes a whole lot of factors to be successful and we are lucky to have a great team of prosecutors, law enforcement and our Child Advocacy Center working on those cases.”

Jackson County, the fourth most-populous county in the region and home to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, averages 65 felony sex crimes reported to police each year and prosecutes about 13 percent of those.

Mike Carr, the Jackson County state’s attorney and a former assistant federal prosecutor, said he believes that sex crime victims who come forward to police are telling the truth about what happened to them.

“It has nothing to do with whether we believe the victim or not,” said Carr, whose office prosecuted just four felony sex crimes in 2013, his first full year in office.

“Again, why wouldn’t you believe somebody who’s walked in and stood up to the public scrutiny of claiming that they’ve been violated?” he said. “You start with that proposition, but you also have the responsibility to look at whether or not the evidence will support bringing the case.”

In Massac County, population 15,400 near the Kentucky border, prosecutors took 26 percent of the felony sex crimes reported to police to court.

State’s Attorney Patrick Windhorst said he was surprised by his office’s prosecution rate, as determined by the BND, “mainly because the number of cases reported to police was significantly higher than the number of cases received by this office.”

Windhorst said he did not blame police or anyone else for the number of sex crimes in his county that didn’t make it to court.

“The decision of the prosecutor in each case should be based on the evidence and not with an eye toward influencing their overall prosecution rate,” he said.

Prosecutors in Saline County, east of Marion, charged 80 percent of all felony sex crimes reported to police — the highest prosecution rate of any county with more than just a few sex crimes — and secured convictions in 80 percent of cases involving an adult defendant. Outcomes in cases involving juvenile defendants could not be determined because those court records are sealed.

State’s Attorney Mike Henshaw, a former judge, said his “secret weapon” is Assistant State’s Attorney Eva Walker. She has never lost a sex crime case that went to trial. She credits her success to diligent preparation and knowing the legal weaponry available under the law.

“Illinois is very progressive,” Walker said. “The statutes are there if you will use them and understand them and get them before a judge who will understand them.”

A law she often relies on allows “certain exceptions” to the usually firm rule that hearsay evidence is not allowed at trial.

According to Walker, and supported by a law journal review, if a sex crime victim is younger than 13, prosecutors can use hearsay evidence if a judge deems it is reliable and tends to prove the crime more than it is preducidial to the defendant. That means statements a young victim may have made to family or friends about being molested or raped can be allowed into trial testimony under certain circumstances.

Walker said cases involving children usually have no eyewitnesses, so hearsay evidence can persuade a jury to convict.

“These are the child’s statements to family, police or neighbors, people who will testify that the child told them about being molested,” Walker said. “You do more for a child, in getting justice for the child, by letting them tell their story.”

Walker also relies on closed-circuit television that allows a child to testify and be cross-examined without facing the defendant, a procedure that must be approved by a judge.

But her most-effective legal tool is an Illinois statute that allows a defendant’s “prior bad acts” to be brought into testimony in a sex crime trial, again with a judge’s order.

“It’s knowing the law,” she said. “Some attorneys don’t know the law. It’s a lot of work.”

Some sex-crime prosecutions fail without explanation.

In St. Clair County, a 7-year old girl told her mother that her mentally handicapped great uncle, “Uncle Terry,” tickled her and bounced her on his lap when both were naked. “He touched my privates,” she told Fairview Heights police.

The great uncle was charged with predatory criminal sexual assault of a child. A year later, in September 2006, after a lengthy court hearing that ended with the defendant being found mentally fit for trial, the case was abruptly dismissed. An assistant prosecutor asked a judge to drop the charges because the victim and her family could not be located.

Ten minutes after reviewing the court file, a BND reporter located the family in Texas after placing a phone call to the victim’s grandfather in Red Bud.

“I was just beside myself when they dropped the charges,” the grandfather said.

Belleville, the largest city in Southern Illinois with a population of 45,000, also had some of the highest numbers of felony sex crimes reported to police.

There were 296 criminal sexual assaults in Belleville and 84 felony sexual abuse complaints, but only 47 adult suspects were brought to court. In 2007, when 40 rapes were reported in the city, just one adult suspect was prosecuted.

When juvenile prosecutions are included, the city’s combined prosecution total was 69 of 380 felony sex crimes, or 18 percent, meaning that eight of 10 sex crime suspects in Belleville were not prosecuted.

“I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not going to make excuses for the legal system or the police department,” Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay III said. “It’s a legal system, not a justice system.”

Clay was surprised by the sex crime prosecution numbers for his department. He said he makes sure that his investigators are properly trained to investigate sex crimes.

“It’s a crime where it’s so easy to exploit the victim,” he said. “You can’t just come in there and say, ‘I want nothing but the facts.’ You can’t have that face on.”

In neighboring East St. Louis, a city of 27,000 with a high rate of violent crimes, 93 percent of reported felony sex crimes reported to police were not prosecuted. During the nine-year period, police received 618 felony sex crime complaints, resulting in 30 court cases with adult defendants and 14 with juvenile defendants, for a prosecution rate of just 7 percent.

In this financially strapped police department, dispatch records showed officers often took a half hour or more to arrive at the scene of a rape. Many rape calls were “cleared” in a minute or less, raising questions about whether some of these cases were investigated at all.

East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Floore said, “I don’t know what the answer is,” when asked what should be done to solve more felony sex crimes in his city. He said that in many of his city’s sex crime cases, the victim is a drug user who can be nearly impossible to locate later.

“You need a victim if you are going to have a prosecution,” he said.

In May 2012, after several years of delay, reports analyzing evidence collected during rape investigations finally began arriving at local police departments from the Illinois State Police Crime Lab in Fairview Heights. The reports included data confirming DNA matches to suspects in dozens of unsolved rapes.

The Illinois attorney general’s office had ordered testing of rape kits that had languished in storage at police departments throughout the state, some of them for years.

The lab found DNA matches to known felons in 15 East St. Louis unsolved rape cases, according to State’s Attorney Kelly. With this information, detectives could track a criminal in a national crime database to revive, and possibly solve, a case.

But nearly two years after the reports arrived, Floore, who was not the chief in 2012, said he was unaware of the state lab DNA matches, or that any had been sent to his department.

“I’ll look into that,” he said.

In a follow-up interview, Floore said the State Police lab DNA matches may not prove particularly useful. He said that while technology in recent years has greatly cut down on the time it takes to come up with a match in a rape case, some victims still won’t cooperate out of fear.

“They’re afraid if they tell on someone that person will kill them,” Floore said.

Steve Johnson, a former captain who headed investigations at the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, said the belief that most rape cases involve women attacked by strangers simply isn’t true.

“That doesn’t happen that much,” said Johnson, who now is an investigator for the state’s attorney’s office.

“In most of these cases the assailant is known. Many of them involve a child assaulted by a family member or friend. Those can be the hardest to prove.”

The review of more than 1,000 police sex crime investigation reports showed that about one in 20 ended with the notation, “Victim failed to cooperate” and were marked closed.

In many investigations, police seemed to anger victims by asking, “Were you drinking?” “Why didn’t you fight back?” or “Did you scream?”

In one 2012 case in Jackson County, a 14-year-old girl described repeated attempts by her sister’s 22-year-old fiancee’ to force her to have sex.

During the interview, a sheriff’s deputy, whose name was redacted from the report, asked the girl, “Did you have an orgasm?” Prosecutors did not take the case.

In another case in May 2010, Centralia police were called to Good Samaritan Hospital after a 21-year-old heroin addict showed up in the emergency room and said she had been raped. Nurses completed a rape examination.

However, by the time police arrived, she had left. They were unable to locate the woman. The case was not prosecuted.

What detectives didn’t know was that in 2006, the woman had told police in a neighboring town that she had been raped by the son of a city official there. She later told a BND reporter that the failure to prosecute that case and its emotional aftermath made her turn to drugs and decide not to cooperate further with police.

Today she is married and has a job. “I’ve learned to let go of a lot of bad things, a lot of bad things,” she said.

In another case, a State Police investigator in June 2009 secretly recorded a Casey, Ill., father’s admission to sexually violating his daughter beginning when she was 15. It was a difficult case with no physical evidence, no eyewitnesses and a delay of several years after the first assault.

The girl, then 18 and living with a boyfriend, was worried that her 13-year-old sister who was still at home might also be violated. On the court-approved wiretap, the father was overheard telling his daughter not to tell anyone what he had done to her, according to an ISP investigative report.

Even with the father’s admission on tape, prosecutors rejected the case and marked it “Victim failed to cooperate.” The blacked out police report did not state why the girl stopped cooperating or what happened to her younger sister.

Cathy McClanahan, director of the Women’s Center in Carbondale, said she regularly encounters rape victims who simply give up and refuse to cooperate with police because the questions made them feel that they had brought on the attack or were to blame.

McClanahan said she tries to prepare her clients for the fact that their attackers likely will not be prosecuted.

“When there is no prosecution, there is no place to go from there except counseling, while the suspect is walking free,” she said. “The numbers are so woefully low that are prosecuted, many victims say why even bother to report it? The perpetrator is not going to get prosecuted. And those that do (report) are subject not only to ridicule and to accusations of lying, but then it still never goes to trial.”

Campbell, the Michigan State University professor, questioned whether sex crimes are that difficult to investigate.

“Yes, they are emotionally devastating for victims, but really, are they that hard for law enforcement to investigate? I hear this all the time — these cases are so hard. Are they? Do you even try?”

Despite what statistics show, not all rape victims know their attackers.

After the stranger choked Terra Johnson until she was unconscious, her bowels and bladder relaxed. She revived with the sensation of the heat of her own waste against her thighs. It was another degradation to add to the beating, the death threats, and the rape.

Johnson, 31, went to a hospital. She told Pontoon Beach police she had never seen her attacker before that night but speculated he had followed her home from a bar. She gave police the license plate number she took from his fleeing car.

While police knew the suspect and where he lived, he was not arrested or charged.

But on a Friday morning more than a year later, Johnson saw his name in the newspaper — Paul M. Sweitzer. He was accused of raping another woman in Collinsville. This time he was charged.

Johnson called the BND, gave up her anonymity and agreed to an interview, giving a detailed account of the violence of the attack on her.

“It would make him excited that I would bleed. It would make him laugh, like it was a thrill to him,” she said.

Sweitzer’s trial started and ended on the same day — Oct. 21, 2011.

The victim in the case was an undocumented immigrant who didn’t speak English. There were discrepancies in her account, prosecutors said. She told police there was a gun. That there was a second man. Neither was true.

Prosecutors nevertheless tried to convince the jury that while the victim was confused on some details, she was telling the truth about the rape.

But during the trial, prosecutors offered Sweitzer a chance to plead guilty to felony aggravated battery and be sentenced to 18 months of weekends in the county jail. He accepted.

Contacted by a BND reporter, Sweitzer said he never attacked Johnson and declined further comment. He is not required to register as a sex offender.

Amber Mers didn’t get a chance to tell her story to a judge or jury. Some may say she didn’t get justice.

Mers said she has more immediate things to deal with. She works as a home health-care worker. She moved recently into a new home with her boyfriend. She’s caring for her terminally ill 5-year-old son.

But stored away in a basement is a brown cardboard box with the word “Diapers” stamped on the side. She’s taken it with her everywhere she’s moved the past eight years. The box and its contents are secret. They belong only to her. Even her boyfriend didn’t know what was inside.

During a recent interview, the box sits beside her. She talks as she unfolds the flaps and pulls out photos that show her injuries and the police reports of her rape investigation, her proof that she was sexually assaulted. Finally, she finds the court order dismissing the rape charge against Todd Pinta. She holds it out to read.

When asked why she keeps the box, Mers looks up, silent for a moment, then answers:

“Most of the time I just try to forget. I keep this just in case he does this again to someone else and I need to remember.”

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