SALT LAKE CITY — Four women seeking criminal charges for sexual assaults they reported but never saw go to court are now turning to a new Utah law that allows them more options for prosecution, stepping forward on the same day Salt Lake City leaders declared their committment to believing victims.
With the passage of HB281 by the Utah Legislature, which gives certain rape and sexual assault victims a second chance to pursue criminal charges after a prosecutor declines their case, the four women, who previously asked the Utah Supreme Court to assign a new prosecutor to their cases, withdrew their petition Wednesday.
Tabitha Bell, one of the women who petitioned Utah's high court in October after prosecutors from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office declined to file charges, gripped her service dog Nox as she spoke Wednesday about her experience as a sexual assault survivor.
"Not every victim gets a great family like I do and I just want to make sure with this bill that every victim can be believed and get the justice they deserve," she said at a news conference Wednesday.
According to the petition, Bell, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, was raped when she was 17 by a classmate of the same age. Bell said it was one week before she told her mother about the assault, and she said she wanted people to understand victims' responses to assault.
She said she froze during her assault, and because of that, she said she was victim blamed by some. She shared her hope Wednesday that this campaign and the new law will enhance the experience for other sexual assault victims.
"Hopefully no other victim will have to go through this process of feeling not believed,” she said later Wednesday during a panel discussion before University of Utah law students.
The Deseret News typically does not identify victims of sexual assault but Bell agreed to identify herself as Jane Doe No. 1 in the case.
Bell spoke at a news conference Wednesday focused on supporting sexual assault victims in honor of Start by Believing Day, part of the national campaign geared toward supporting victims of sexual assault and removing the stigma surrounding it.
According to court documents, the four women have asked the Utah Attorney General’s Office to conduct a fresh review of their cases under the new law.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB281 last week, but it does not take effect until May.
The bill gives the Utah Attorney General's Office authority to reconsider first-degree felony cases and possibly file criminal charges after a county attorney passes on the case or waits more than six months to evaluate it. First-degree felonies, considered the most serious offenses, include rape, object rape and murder.
Critics have said the secondary reviews may be unnecessary because prosecutors carefully weigh the cases in the first place, but supporters contend it is a fallback measure in rare instances where a well-founded criminal case is declined.
Previously, Utah's attorney general could intervene, according to the law's sponsor, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee. But that's been possible only when there’s been an abuse of discretion by a district or county attorney, generally meaning a clear error or unreasonable conclusion, the Clearfield Republican has said in the past.
The first Wednesday in April was designated as Start by Believing Day by the 2015 Legislature, when Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored HCR1, a resolution aimed at supporting survivors of sexual violence and the End Violence Against Women International's Start by Believing campaign.
Utah was the first to declare the annual day and the nonprofit later adopted the day as part of its Start by Believing campaign.
Also Wednesday, Salt Lake leaders declared it would be a "Start by Believing" city.
Jennifer Seelig, director of community empowerment with the Salt Lake City mayor's office, read the proclamation on behalf of Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who was sick and unable to attend.
The proclamation cited data from the 2007 Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Rape study, which found 1 in 3 Utah women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, higher than the national average for sexual assault crimes.
"We encourage the people and organizations of Salt Lake City to provide support to survivors of rape and sexual assault," Seelig read from the proclamation.
Reed Richards, of the Utah Council of Crime Victims, also spoke in support of the declaration, as well as Heidi Nestel, director of Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic.
"This I think provides a wonderful right to our crime victims in the state of Utah," Richards said of the new law. "A wonderful step forward in the Utah legal system."
Alexandra Merritt, a victim advocate with the clinic, read a statement from the woman identified as Jane Doe No. 4 in the petition, who was unable to attend the event.
"I almost did not report my sexual assault because I knew the process would be scary and difficult and I was very afraid to make it a part of my life," Merritt read from the statement. "The truth was my perpetrator already made sexual assault a part of my life, and it was up to me stand up for myself and fight for justice."
Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge, represents the four women along with four other attorneys.
"It's been an honor to represent these brave young women," Cassell told the Deseret News Wednesday. "They're sort of the test case, if you will, and what we're very excited about is by pushing these four cases forward we've gotten legislation that's going to hopefully make a difference."
The Utah attorney general supports the law, according to a written statement from his office.
"Attorney General Sean Reyes is a fierce advocate of providing justice and a voice for those who have endured a violent crime and for punishing those responsible," Rich Piatt, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said in the statement. "This new law will provide backup support to Utah’s county and district attorneys who work hard to take criminals off the streets. We will continue to work with the legislature to make sure we have the resources we need to review these additional cases. Victims and their families deserve as much."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill did not respond to requests for comment, but said in October in response to the original petition that his office has "always supported victim rights and advocates for victims. And one of our challenges, of course, is this issue is not just simply an issue of our prosecution. It's a broader issue of attrition rates systemically."
Gill said at the time that if a case is declined, there can be "further investigation." However, prosecutors "have an obligation" to meet their burden of proof and make sure there is enough evidence.
Following the news conference, the Women's Law Caucus held a panel about the underprosecution of sexual assault cases with Cassell, Nestel and forensic nurse and BYU assistant professor Julie Valentine. Bell and Bethany Warr, attorney with the victim's legal clinic who represent's some of the women from the petition, also joined the panel.
Nestel noted that sexual assault cases are difficult to take to court.
"We know these prosecutors are dedicated to this process, we just have a lot of challenges sometimes convincing juries and educating them to victim behavior," she said.
But she added she didn't want people to think it's all "doom and gloom," when it comes to prosecution of sexual assault cases.
"What I am here to report is we are seeing some very creative and inspired prosecutors across the state who are trying to take some of these tough cases,"
Valentine spoke about her 2013 study, which examined prosecution rates for sexual assault cases in Salt Lake County between 2003 and 2011 and found that charges were not filed in 91 percent of cases — a larger number than the national number of about 82 to 84 percent.
Valentine said she is in the process of repeating the study to compare numbers and said she hopes to see a huge difference, one she credits to changes in how law enforcement handles sexual assault cases.
She challenged the audience to take what they heard Wednesday to heart and work to change the stigma surrounding sexual assault.
“I feel that this research and this movement is a spark, but it needs to be a bonfire and that bonfire needs to mean all of us working together and saying, ‘Tabitha, we believe you and we are going to do what we can as a society to support survivors with the goal of decreasing sexual violence,’” she said, a nod to Bell. “You all have heard the numbers about our high rates of sexual violence and we need to and I believe we can change this.”
Those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault can get assistance from Utah's statewide 24-hour Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.