Violation of Trust

'Has to stop': At SIUC, few felony sex crimes end up in court

Two men were convicted of felony sex crimes during a nine-year period on the campus of the largest university in Southern Illinois, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation.

One was convicted for raping a female student, the other for molesting his girlfriend’s 14-year-old son in a restroom at McAndrew Stadium during a Salukis football game.

Campus police investigated 41 complaints of criminal sexual assault, or rape, and 11 allegations of felony sexual abuse from 2005-13 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which has an enrollment of about 18,000 students.

Yet, only five of these 52 reported felony sex crimes, or 10 percent, ended up in a courtroom.

In Carbondale and surrounding Jackson County, where many students live, the prosecution rates for felony sex crimes were nearly the same: 8 percent in the city and 13 percent for the county as a whole.

Carbondale Mayor Don Monty said the BND’s figures give a false impression of his city. He said Carbondale is a safe place to live.

“I believe that relatively few cases are prosecuted due to the lack of strong evidence that will convince a 12-person jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” Monty said.

Councilwoman Jane Adams disagreed. “It’s unacceptable that the numbers of sexual assaults are so high ... and that the numbers of prosecutions — and successful prosecutions — are so woefully low,” she said.

Dr. Roger Herrin, a podiatrist and member of the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees, said the situation at the Carbondale campus needs immediate attention, especially in light of three gang rapes reported since August on campus. Police arrested nine people in connection with allegations, but no one has been prosecuted.

On. Oct 2, Herrin sent an email to fellow board members and the university’s administration stating, in part, “This is a very grave matter and impacts the integrity of our great university. Aggressive and immediate action by the administration and the board of trustees needs to be taken at whatever the costs.”

Herrin, a former trustee board president, said authorities must get to the root of the problem.

“This has to stop. It has to stop. If it’s at the university level, we need to find the cause. Whether it’s alcohol or people coming onto the campus,” he said.

On Oct. 28, the SIU Board of Trustees’ executive committee discussed Herrin’s warning under the agenda heading “Campus Climate Issues,” but took no formal action.

University spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith pointed to a scenario common to rape investigations.

“The state’s attorney would be best able to speak to the number of prosecutions, but looking at cases individually, we note that in a large number, we were advised that prosecution did not move forward because it could not be proven the sex was non-consensual or forced,” she said.

Safety training programs for students and faculty are in place to make the campus safer, Goldsmith said.

In recent months, a U.S. Senate committee has been focusing on the growing problem of sexual assaults on college campuses like SIUC.

By comparison, the number of felony sex crimes reported at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville were low. For the same nine-year period, 2005-13, campus police reported 12 rapes. One led to a prosecution, but that case was dismissed.

Officials believe the lower number likely is due to the higher amount of on-campus housing at SIUC.

Carbondale’s new police chief, Jeff Grubbs, could not be reached for comment, and former police chief Jody O’Guinn declined to comment.

City Manager Kevin Baity said Grubbs “holds the same philosophy that the police department has operated under for years: It is the city’s responsibility to investigate reported crimes to the fullest extent possible and present the cases to the Jackson County state’s attorney.”

Baity declined to comment on whether city government should do more to see that more sex crimes committed in the city are prosecuted.

City Councilman Lee Fronabarger, who also is an SIUC administrator, said, “That’s up to the police and the prosecutors. We’re trying to run a city; we don’t get involved with that.”

Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Carr said evidence is key in prosecuting rape cases.

“I don’t think any prosecutor wants to revictimize a victim of a sexual assault or an abuse case, so we are very careful how we look at cases and the way our office handles cases,” said Carr, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Illinois.

During 2013, his first full year on the job, Carr’s office prosecuted four of an estimated 65 felony sex crimes reported to police in Jackson County. All four resulted in a conviction.

A BND investigation showed that authorities did not prosecute seven out of 10 felony sex crime suspects from 2005-13 in a 32-county region of Southern Illinois.

Carr was critical of the BND’s approach of comparing the overall number of felony sex crimes received by police to the number that result in prosecutions.

“You can’t just throw a percentage at a prosecutor’s office or a law enforcement office and say what’s wrong. ...You really need to be looking at what you are doing to screen these cases,” he said.

“In the scheme of things, saying that only 10 percent, or whatever the percentage is, is a telling number to me, it’s not. To me what it says is that you’ve gone out and collected a bunch of numbers. I don’t know that you can equate a 10 percent (prosecution) rate to meaning whether or not there is effective law enforcement or effective prosecution.”

Adams, the Carbondale councilwoman, responded, “It simply isn’t credible that 90 percent of cases could not be prosecuted. It will take political will on the part of the citizenry and the city’s elected officials to demand thorough investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault cases.”

Mike Wepsiec, who was Jackson County’s state’s attorney for two decades until leaving office in 2012, said it’s strictly evidence and not numbers and percentages of overall reported sex crimes that governs decisions about which crimes to prosecute.

“The defense in many of these cases is consent. Because of the psychological trauma these cases carry with them, I don’t like the phrase ‘he said-she said,’ but, it boils down to that. What differentiates the cases that get filed from those that don’t is the presence of corroborating evidence,” he said.

Prosecutors look for a lot of different kinds of evidence, he said.

“A third-party witness who hears the victim cry ‘stop’ or ‘don’t do that.’ Torn clothing helps a prosecution. Physical injury inconsistent with consensual sex helps a prosecution. A prompt complaint helps a prosecution.”

But even with a confession, Wepsiec’s office has been willing to deal rape cases down to probation and once, to probation and a letter of apology to the victim.

Randall A. Smith, 51, of Murphysboro, admitted he raped a sleeping woman in 2012 because he thought she had stolen cigarettes from him and he wanted to get even, “to steal something from her,” he told police.

Even though he told police he raped the woman, prosecutors reduced the charge to felony sexual abuse, according to a court document. He pleaded guilty and received probation. He also was ordered to write an apology to his victim and donate $5,000 to the Carbondale Women’s Center, and is required to register as a sex offender.

Victims of sexual assault at Southern Illinois University Carbondale can have their complaints heard by a panel overseen by the university’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities without notifying police. The panel operates in secret and can suspend or expel a student for a variety of reasons, including code violations.

From 2009-13, the panel heard 16 cases involving sexual complaints. It suspended six students and expelled one.

The university, citing federal privacy laws, declined to name the students who were disciplined.

University police sent 11 sex crime investigations to the Jackson County state’s attorney’s office from 2005-13. Five were prosecuted as felonies: Two resulted in probation for a reduced charge of misdemeanor aggravated battery; one ended in a not-guilty verdict, and one resulted in a 10-year prison term for a man convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy in a bathroom at the university football stadium.

Only Jamal P. Jones, 21, who was a student at another college, was convicted of rape.

In 2012, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

For all of Jackson County, the fourth most-populous county in Southern Illinois, only 13 percent of all felony sex crimes reported to police resulted in convictions, and just 20 defendants went to prison during the nine-year study period.

Local advocates for rape victims said they are alarmed by this record.

“We can’t seem to get the system, the institutions that are in place around here, to do the right thing — to take a stand and support a sexual assault survivor,” said Megan Jones-Williams, sexual assault program coordinator for the Women’s Center in Carbondale.

While Jones-Williams praised what she called the thoroughness of the Carbondale Police Department’s sex crime investigations, she sharply criticized the prosecutor’s office.

Carbondale police referred 163 rape and felony sexual abuse cases to the state’s attorney’s office for prosecution during the nine years, of which 26 were accepted, according to police documents and court records.

“It seems like unless there’s no chance they’re gonna lose, they won’t even try it,” Jones-Williams said.

“We hear a lot that they don’t want to put a victim through a trial. But we think that even if they don’t win, it’s a validation that the state’s attorney is at least going to try.”

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