A team of prosecutors in New Haven, Connecticut, has begun focusing on sexual assaults in an effort to present stronger cases and make the criminal justice process easier for victims.
State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, the top prosecutor for the 13-town New Haven Judicial District, put together the team shortly after being sworn into office in July. The five veteran prosecutors in the Special Crimes Unit have been working for a few weeks now, developing protocols for themselves and local police on handling sexual assault cases from the time a complaint is made to disposition in the court system.
“These are the most difficult cases,” Griffin said. “By pairing the prosecutors and local police departments in the early stages of the investigation, we will create a better product. The idea is that each case gets investigated the same way.”
The prosecution team is the first of its kind in the state, although there are many across the country, Griffin said.
Nearly 800 rapes were reported in Connecticut last year, according to data that state officials reported to the FBI. Only 33 percent of rape cases were “cleared,” meaning an offender was charged or police had enough evidence to support an arrest but one wasn’t made for various reasons.
Sexual assault cases are often the most difficult to prosecute, and many end in acquittal. Victims often delay reporting the crimes, reducing the chances to obtain forensic evidence and immediately examine crime scenes, said Lisa D’Angelo, an assistant state’s attorney on the new team. Many sexual assaults involve minors, who can have trouble remembering details, she said.
“We spend a lot of time on these cases and believe the victims,” D’Angelo said. “Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to prove to a jury.”
Two prosecutors in the new unit will review every arrest warrant application. If they don’t agree on whether it should be approved, the whole team will look at it. The prosecutors also will work with closely with police.
A prosecutor will stay on the case from beginning to end, providing more continuity and comforting traumatized victims who are often traumatized all over again by reliving the assault in the court system, D’Angelo said.
Only 35 percent of sexual assaults nationwide are reported to police, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Victims may choose not to go to authorities for a variety of reasons, including fear of reprisal or getting the offender in trouble, the bureau says.
Out of every 1,000 rapes, only 63 reports lead to arrest, seven cases lead to a felony conviction and six convicted rapists will go to prison, according to the national statistics.
The Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence welcomed the new prosecution team in New Haven.
“It certainly sends a message to victims that folks are making an effort to be sensitive to victims’ needs,” said Laura Cordes, executive director of the alliance. “Victims face undue shame and guilt. When prosecutors, police and advocates work together, they can break down some of those barriers.”