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Challenges of Sexual Assault Investigations

Posted on June 1, 2023 in Sex Crimes

When a person is accused of sexual assault in Arizona, law enforcement will assign investigators to look into the incident. Before an arrest can be made, the police must find enough evidence to provide reasonable cause to take the alleged offender into custody. Sexual assault investigations come with many unique challenges, leading to only a small percentage of cases resulting in actual arrests.

Tasks Involved in a Sexual Assault Investigation

A sexual assault investigation aims to determine whether the sexual activity or contact in question took place, the identity of the suspect, and if the suspect had the victim’s consent. Conducting the investigation to answer these questions often involves the collection and analysis of available evidence, the development of a theory of how the crime took place, validation of this theory, suspect identification, forming reasonable grounds for an arrest, and taking action to make the arrest and file charges.

No Witnesses

One of the challenges posed by a sexual assault investigation is a lack of eyewitnesses. These crimes often take place in private, with no third parties present. This can turn the case into a “he said, she said” situation, where it is the word of the accuser against that of the accused. If the suspect denies that sexual assault or any sexual activity took place, he or she may be acquitted of the charges if there is enough reasonable doubt. A lack of witnesses can contribute to generating this doubt.

Unreliable Victim Statements

An issue that goes hand-in-hand with a lack of witnesses is the reliability of the alleged victim’s account. Many things can contribute to unreliable victim statements, including emotional distress, an intoxicated or drug-induced state, unconsciousness, and the inability to get a clear view of the perpetrator. This can lead to misidentifications in suspect lineups and the wrong defendant being accused of sexual assault. Delayed reporting can also decrease the accuracy of victim accounts; survivors of sexual assault may wait many years before coming forward, at which point the details of the event may be foggy.

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Lack of Evidence

To achieve a guilty verdict against a defendant, the prosecution must establish the elements of a sexual assault case with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest evidentiary standard in law. A common defense used is insufficient evidence, meaning the prosecution has failed to provide compelling enough evidence to convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Typically, sexual assault criminal cases are built on evidence such as DNA, hairs, fibers, fingerprints, footprints and tire tracks. Many factors can contribute to a lack of evidence available in a sexual assault case, including delayed reporting, the victim failing to see a doctor or receive a forensic sexual assault examination, no clothing or DNA evidence gathered after the fact, and a lack of witness testimony.

The Issue of Consent

Finally, consent can present a roadblock to a sexual assault investigation. The prosecutor must prove that the perpetrator did not have the victim’s consent to engage in the sexual activity. This may mean that the victim was under the age of consent (18 years old in Arizona) or that the victim did not agree to engage in sexual activity.

If the victim was legally an adult, proving a lack of consent can be difficult, as it may be the victim’s word against the defendant’s. If lack of consent is based only on the fact that the victim was a minor, the defense may be able to argue that the defendant had no reason to know the victim was underage.

Contact a Defense Attorney Today

If you are being accused of sexual assault in Arizona, contact AZ Defenders immediately for a free and confidential case evaluation. As your criminal defense lawyers, our goal will be to find holes in the prosecutor’s case against you, including weaknesses in the investigation or mistakes made in the chain of evidence. Your attorney can search for and use these issues to aid in your defense.