Lynnwood, Washington resident D.M. was 18 when she was raped on 11 August, 2008 by a stranger who broke into her apartment and restrained her. As rape victims are so commonly told they should do, she reported the crime to the police, expecting support and assistance with locating the perpetrator and bringing him to justice.
That’s not what happened.
Oh, initially the police took her statement, collected evidence like the shoelace used to restrain her, the underwear used to gag her, a butcher knife, and information from a sexual assault exam that provided clear indicators of sexual assault.
By 14 August, the police had decided that she’d made up the report, and they started pressuring her to recant her claims. The grounds? Conversations with three people: D.M.’s foster mother, who’d recently been fighting with her; a friend whom she’d talked to on the night of the rape; and, of course, our old friend the anonymous caller. They decided there were “inconsistencies” in her story and pressured her during an interrogation that included no Miranda warning.
Those inconsistencies, of course, came entirely from hearsay evidence. None of the people involved had actually been present with her on the night of the rape, let alone during the actual event, and it’s their statements that should have been viewed with suspicion, not hers. Yet, apparently hearsay evidence from people who may have their own interests in the story outweighs the testimony of the witness (and victim) who was, you know. There.
So she caved, confessing that she’d made up the story. That resulted in charges for false claims, which meant she had to pay a $500 fine, undergo mental health evaluation, and complete a diversion course. Not only that, but she claims officials at Cocoon House, the transitional housing organization that was supposed to be helping her adjust from the foster care system to adult life, forced her to publicly recant her claim in front of a room full of teens.
Ultimately, she said she must have dreamed the whole thing.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, like a shocking number of rape victims in the United States and around the world, she was intimidated into silence, and she chose to recant her accusation rather than follow through in response to the immense pressure on her to take it back. She could have become another statistic, another woman who lost faith in the justice system, another woman who saw first-hand that police are not necessarily on the side of victims.
Because that’s how these stories usually go, and they usually involve minority women: women of color, sex workers, and trans women are often ignored or accused of making false accusations when they try to report rapes. Women may be outright mocked for filing claims, as has been the case with some disabled women.
But instead, Colorado police arrested a former Washington resident after a string of serial rapes 2011. And lo and behold, what did they find when they started searching his belongings? Evidence of two rapes in Washington, including that of D.M. and a 63-year-old woman from Kirkland, Washington. They got in touch in Washington police, who had to reopen the case with egg on their face; the woman they’d humiliated and forced to lie about what had happened to her three years ago was, it turned out, right all along.
D.M.’s rapist has been sentenced to prison in Colorado, where he’ll be staying for quite a while. But D.M. has no intent of stopping there. She just filed a suit naming Detectives Jerry Rittgarn and Sergeant Jeff Mason, Cocoon House, the City of Lynnwood, and Police Chief Steven J. Jensen, demanding damages for defamation, negligence, and civil rights violations.
It sounds like a slam dunk: rape victim double victimized by the system, turned from supposed victim of a crime to supposed perpetrator of one and then vindicated three years later, but will it turn out to be that simple? This is not the first, or, sadly, the last time that a rape victim has been in this position, and court trials of this nature do not always turn out well.
The Lynnwood Police Department is keeping mum, turning any requests for comment over to their attorneys, which is probably a wise move. In court, they’re likely to rely on the claims that they felt her story wasn’t “consistent,” which sets an uncomfortable precedent for rape victims, who are supposed to be perfect in every way when they report. Not only are they supposed to be the right “kind” of victim, but they’re also supposed to remember everything that happened in flawless detail, and to be able to spiel everything off with impeccable memory.
People, though, actually make really bad witnesses, even about things that happened to them. Which means that a woman reporting a rape -- an incredibly traumatic and violating crime -- may not always get all of the details right, especially when she’s asked to tell the story multiple times in different locations. Reliving such events through testimony is exhausting and upsetting, and details can start to slip away or muddy, if they were ever there in the first place.
Thus, it’s not surprising to hear witness testimony change, which is why the use of eyewitness testimony in court has been repeatedly challenged. It doesn’t mean witnesses didn’t see -- or experience -- something, but it does mean that the details might be hazy. This victim was obviously raped, and all the physical evidence supported her claim. The fact that some of her details didn’t match up wasn’t a surprise; what would have been more remarkable is if she’d been able to parrot back the same story over and over again, which might have suggested that her testimony was coached or rehearsed.
But it wasn’t. She was just a terrified 18-year-old rape victim emerging out of the foster system and into the adult world, and she got a sharp and horrible lesson about how “adults” treat each other, and how rape victims are handled in the “justice system.” I hope D.M. gets the justice she deserves, and more than that, I hope her case sends a signal that enough is enough: it’s time to stop intimidating young women brave enough to step forward and report, and we're going to keep talking about rape until it stops happening.
Because D.M. could be you. She could be me. She could be anyone.