Alaska has a rape problem. According to the FBI's 2014 Crime in the United States report, Alaska reported an average of 104.7 rapes per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly three times the national average of 38.5. In 2010, the Alaska Victimization Survey, released by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, reported nearly 40 percent of all Alaska women were subjected to sexual violence at some point in their lives. Sexual violence is an epidemic in Alaska that continues in part because the laws of this state enable abusers, and make it harder to prosecute sexual assault and similar cases.
Here's how it plays out. A father sexually assaults his daughter. She musters the courage to tell her teacher. Her teacher tells the police. Her father finds out, and tells her she better keep her mouth shut. When the police ask her what happened, she's scared and says, "Nothing happened." Under Alaska law, her father now has all the tools he needs to keep abusing her without fear of consequences.
He molests her again a year later. This time she tells police everything because she wants to break the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately for her, Alaska law permits her father to tell a jury she lied before, she's lying again, and that's just what she does. He might not even need to tell them. Maybe he's already told her what he will say about her and, afraid of what will happen if her community believes him, she calls the officers and says again, "Nothing happened." Her father's intimidation one year before was an investment that pays dividends – every time he assaults her and stops her from speaking out against him, he co-opts her further. Her initial bravery, horribly, now allows him to continue the abuse.
Alaska's law assumes the worst of sexual assault victims. The law that allows the above scenario assumes when a victim abandons her claim, she admits she lied. Most people familiar with sexual assault reject this interpretation. Oregon's Sexual Assault Task Force, for example, explains, "Recantations are routinely used by victims to disengage the criminal justice system's response and are therefore NOT, by themselves, indicative of false reports." Victim advocates are familiar with this phenomenon, as sexual assault victims often assert an assault did not happen just to end a traumatic criminal investigation that forces them to relive the trauma.
The law also relies on an outdated concept of rape. If the father we described had struck his daughter, the law would not permit him to say because she recanted once before in a similar case, she must be a liar. Alaska's law treats sexual assault victims' credibility differently simply because they involve sex. Other states have rejected this. Texas, for example, notes that other cases, like kidnappings, could be very similar in terms of the challenges presented to a jury so there is no reason to treat sexual assault cases differently.
The Utah Supreme Court lamented the tragedy of laws like these, saying that, "Without the cooperation of victims and witnesses in reporting and testifying about crime, it is impossible in a free society to hold criminals accountable. When victims come forward to perform this vital service, however, they find little protection. They discover instead that they will be treated as appendages of a system appallingly out of balance. They learn that somewhere along the way the system has lost track of the simple truth that it is supposed to be fair and to protect those who obey the law while punishing those who break it."
Senate Bill 176 would get Alaska's system back on track. This bill would exclude the baseless smears that allow abusers, like the one we described, to control their victims. A jury will be allowed to hear about provable false reports, and then only under the same rules that normally govern evidence, they will also hear prior dishonest statements in any other case. This bill will protect sexual assault victims' constitutional right to be treated with dignity and fairness. It will give them the power to tell their own story. It will help our courts find the real truth justice requires. It will still protect defendants who have a real defense to present. Our bill restores balance to our courts and protects all citizens alike, and we ask you to write your legislators to ask them to support it.
Berta Gardner is the Senate minority leader, representing District I in Anchorage, which includes Midtown, Spenard, and U-Med. Daniel Doty was an assistant district attorney in Bethel from 2013 to 2015. He is now engaged in private practice in Anchorage. The views expressed herein are his own.
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