Story by: Danielle Battaglia

GREENSBORO — A young woman collapsed in the courtroom as jurors announced that they found a man not guilty of raping her.

Her family stood as the defendant walked out.

Sonya Desai, a client services coordinator for the Guilford County Family Justice Center, can’t forget that day.

“You watch a rapist go back into society when you know you are 99.99 percent sure it happened and it is going to happen again,” Desai said. “That is horrifying for a victim and her family.”

It’s not easy to get a sexual assault conviction in Guilford County. Officials who work with survivors said they have seen even the strongest cases fall apart.

And Guilford County is not alone. It’s a trend that has been playing out in many other counties across North Carolina, according to a review of four years of state court data by the Asheville-based Carolina Public Press and nine other media outlets.

The conviction rates vary from county to county, but a common theme is evident: a system that makes it hard for cases to be tried and accusers to win.

In the four-year period studied by the Carolina Public Press — from 2014 to 2018 — 32 of 40 sexual assault defendants in Guilford County weren’t convicted and the county’s 20 percent conviction rate was slightly under the state average.

Plea deals were one factor. Another is more anecdotal: the way juries perceive the accuser and accused, police and victims advocates say.

But many cases will never see a courtroom.

“The reason, more often than not, is hesitancy on the victim,” said Sgt. Dale Nix, who leads the Greensboro Police Department’s family victims unit. “Right now, the way that our system is designed, is victim-based prosecution. Ultimately, it is determined on the victim’s willingness to prosecute the case.”

And therein lies the problem. Nix said that many victims are discouraged by the length of time it takes for a case to go to court. He said an investigation takes about six to eight months before charges can be made.

Sonya Desai, a client services coordinator for the Guilford County Family Justice Center, knows what it’s like to lose a case. “You watch a rapist go back into society when you know you are 99.99 percent sure it happened and it is going to happen again. That is horrifying for a victim and her family.

Then it will probably be another year or two before the case can be prosecuted by the district attorney’s office because of legal wrangling.

Roughly two years later, the victim is being asked to relive the traumatic event.

“They might have come to terms with what has happened to them and now suddenly it’s going to be all dredged up in front of a room full of people,” Nix said. “The victim tends to hesitate and does not want to go forward with the prosecution.”

Complicating matters, Nix said getting a conviction in a sexual assault case can also be hindered by the state’s backlog of untested rape kits — there were 15,130 last year — the unwillingness of prosecutors to try cases and jurors who have inaccurate views about sexual assault.

One major misconception: Rape involves strangers.

According to studies, that’s only 3 percent of cases. The rest of the victims know their attacker.

Catherine Johnson, the director of the Guilford County Family Justice Center, said that until people change their thinking about sexual assault, the conviction rate will never match the number of people charged.

“It’s a huge problem in every community, not just Guilford County,” Johnson said.

Still, she said the lack of convictions says a lot about public perception.

“I think when we look at the very small percentage of cases that have the evidence and all the conditions to move forward with prosecution — and then the conviction rate — it tells a story about what we believe or what we tolerate around sexual crime in our community,” Johnson said.

Mary Nero, a former Greensboro police detective, can’t forget a rape case from N.C. A&T. She said the victim reported the rape within 24 hours, went to the hospital, had evidence collected and took out a restraining order. The accused man turned himself into police.

Nero said the prosecutor didn’t want to try the case, but she pushed him to take it to trial.

Jurors heard a recorded interview of the defendant saying he had sex with the victim in her kitchen as she cried.

Still, that wasn’t enough to sway them. They found the defendant not guilty.

“I will always remember that case and being disgusted by it,” Nero recalled. “Short of saying, ‘Yeah, I raped her’ he admitted to it.”

What a juror told Nero a few weeks later made the case even more memorable. Nero asked why the jury thought the defendant wasn’t guilty.

The juror’s answer: “We didn’t like how the victim marched into the courtroom every day.”

Nero recalled that even selecting a jury was difficult, but not surprising. According to some studies, one out of every three women have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lives.

“A lot of women couldn’t be part of the jury,” Nero said. “They would say they couldn’t and start crying in the courtroom or say that someone close to them was a victim.”

For Desai, she is haunted by a case where a woman was beaten and raped by her boyfriend.

During the trial, photos were presented of the trauma she sustained.

When the victim was on the witness stand, her testimony was so powerful the judge called for a recess so everyone could take a break, Desai said.

As jurors walked out, the judge told the victim she could return to her seat.

“All of a sudden, she just started puking,” Desai said.

Later, the defendant was found not guilty.

“Someone went back to the jury and they talked to them and (the jury) said the victim was too stoic when she testified,” Desai said. “I was like why weren’t they out there when she puked?

“She was holding it together because she didn’t want to do that in front of them.”

Nero, the former Greensboro police detective, said sexual assault cases can be unappealing for district attorneys because many times — and statewide statistics bear this out — there are no witnesses and little evidence.

There are other contributing factors, she contends.

“If the DA doesn’t like it or doesn’t like the victim or feels like they won’t win, we won’t get their blessing to make charges,” Nero said.

In her experience, district attorneys are also unwilling to handle a sexual assault case when alcohol is involved.

Nero remembers an instance involving two couples who socialized together. One evening when the victim’s husband was out of town, the couple came over for drinks.

The victim fell asleep only to wake up and find the other woman’s husband on top of her trying to have sex.

“I had to make that call and tell her, ‘I believe you, but the DA doesn’t want to take a chance on this case,’ ” Nero said. “It freaking broke my heart.”

Read the original story here.