A picture I saw in an Anchorage courtroom has haunted me the past couple of weeks. It is of a woman, naked from the waist down, sitting in the middle of Commercial Drive. Her face and clothes are covered with blood. It was taken in late April 2010, just after 1 a.m. The woman's age is unknown. She is Alaska Native. She's pointing to something out of the frame. Her mouth is open, as if she's screaming.
I saw the picture projected on a courtroom screen several times during the three-week sexual assault trial of David Standifer. The woman is his alleged victim. You would think that the photo would be evidence to support what she says happened to her. You'd think that a woman, bloody and missing her pants, has a story that should be believed. But throughout the trial the photo worked both ways, depending on which side was using it. It became evidence either of her victimization or of her flaws -- addiction, mental illness -- the reasons she was not to be trusted by the jury.
I should explain what brought me to the trial. I was looking to get a better idea of how complex sex assault cases are to prove. I was trying to make sense of a statistic I'd heard from Amanda Price, the executive director of Standing Together Against Rape. The statistic, which comes from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, is this: Of every 100 rapes that occur in the United States, 40 are reported, eight get prosecuted, four lead to a felony conviction, and three lead to prison time. So that means that 97 percent of the time, when someone is assaulted, no one goes to prison. And in Alaska, we have the highest rate of sexual assault in the country, according to the FBI's 2012 crime report.
There are a lot of reasons people who commit sex assaults don't go to jail, Price told me. For one thing, victims don't report them. When they do, sex assault cases can be difficult to prosecute. Prosecutors and detectives I talked to explained that a strong case often requires two things, and many cases just don't have what's necessary. There needs to be evidence that the sexual contact occurred. And there needs to be evidence that it happened without the victim's consent. Forensic evidence is close to essential. Juries expect it. Even with it, proving a lack of consent can be hard. Without a witness, many trials come down to whether or not the jury believes the victim.
" 'He-said, she-said' is alive and well," long-time Anchorage Police sex assault detective John Vandervalk told me while we waited in the hallway during a break in the Standifer trial.
Alcohol and drugs are often involved on both sides, he said. Many victims lead risky, complicated lives. Perpetrators are looking for those kind of victims, he said. Problems like addiction make a person both more vulnerable to assault and less likely to report what happened, he said. The same problems that make victims attractive to perpetrators can also undermine their testimony before a jury. The Standifer trial was an example of that.
One of the first things I noticed as I watched the trial was that the gallery seating in the courtroom was always nearly empty. There was no family or friend to support either the victim or Standifer. Both of them, it turned out, were living on the streets when the alleged sex assault occurred. Standifer was less than a month out of jail at the time, Vandervalk told me. He was a repeat drunken driver, according to his court file. He had been sleeping outside near Ship Creek, according to testimony.
Both the prosecutor, Jenna Gruenstein, and the defense attorney, James Ferguson, paid special attention to the story of how the night unfolded. Gruenstein, who projected a picture of the victim in the street at the opening of the trial, said that the woman had been with friends, drinking, in Mountain View. She encountered Standifer, whom she didn't know, on the street. They struck up a conversation. He was carrying some alcohol in a cup. He shared it with her and invited her back to his camp. She went with him. When they got to his camp, the victim realized no one else was there. There were no tents. There was only a sleeping bag in the woods.
Standifer wanted sex, Gruenstein said. The victim didn't. He grabbed her, trying to force her to have oral sex. She resisted him and he punched her in the face, Gruenstein said. It caused her nose to bleed. He pinned her down and pulled off her pants. He forced himself on her, choking her with his arm around her neck. He sexually assaulted her with his hand, Gruenstein told the jury, and tried to assault her from behind. The victim fought him and broke away, running through the woods until she reached Commercial Drive. That's where she collapsed in the middle of the street. A rape exam showed internal injuries consistent with sexual assault, along with other physical injures, including evidence that she'd been choked and struck in the face.
Police found Standifer in his sleeping bag. He had what turned out to be the victim's blood on his clothing and his hands. There were condoms on the ground. The victim's backpack was found nearby. Her pants were not recovered.
It's true the victim was intoxicated when the assault took place, the prosecutor told the jury. But that does not mean that she isn't able to tell what happened to her, Gruenstein said.
"(The victim) doesn't have to be an ideal role model to be protected by the law," Gruenstein said.
Ferguson, the defense attorney, is supposed to make the jury have doubts. In his version of the story of that night, the victim and Standifer were involved in a consensual sexual encounter. Standifer ended it because of the victim's poor personal hygiene, he said. The victim smelled, he told the jury.
She was offended, he said. There was a struggle. She told police Standifer raped her to get back at him, Ferguson said. She also had a jealous boyfriend and she didn't want him to know she cheated.
The victim, he said, was detoxing from alcohol during her interview with detectives, he said. She had a problem with blacking out as well as a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. Her answers to the detective's questions trailed off and she fell in and out of sleep during her interview. She sang to herself in the back of the police car. She had a history of dishonesty because she'd been convicted of shoplifting, he said. Could she be believed?
She told police the night of the incident that she had a tendency to have bloody noses, Ferguson said. She lived on the street. She'd also had sex with her boyfriend recently, according to what she told the forensic nurse. Could jurors be sure all of her injuries came from Standifer?
Ferguson turned to the photo of the victim in the street as the trial closed. He pointed out the fact that she wasn't wearing pants. Police didn't find pants, he said, because she wasn't wearing any that day. Instead, he told jurors, she was wearing what she had on when a passerby found her screaming in the street: a shirt tied around her waist and no underwear. What kind of message did that send? Perhaps she was after more alcohol the night of the alleged assault, Ferguson said. Maybe she wanted to get it from Standifer.
"There are all kinds of reasons people consent to sex that don't have to do with desire or romantic love," he said.
The jury might agree that something happened between Standifer and the victim, he said, but to convict, they had to be sure. Could they really be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt?
The jury deliberated all afternoon Wednesday and into the next day. Late Thursday, I got word they'd made a decision.
I rode the elevator up to the courtroom and thought about the victim. She had told her story to police, detectives, a nurse, and, after three years, to a jury and a judge. Every area of her life had been examined by strangers: the ugliness of her addiction, her homelessness, her body, her sex life, her diagnosis of mental illness. She'd been called dishonest, dirty and promiscuous. It was humiliating. All of that came on top of what happened in that camp near Ship Creek that sent her running through the woods three years ago.
I took a seat in the nearly empty courtroom. The jury filed in. They found Standifer guilty on all counts.
Someone near the prosecution table said they would call the victim to let her know. After everything she had to go through to get to that call, I wondered, would she say that it was worth it?
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.