Advocates Worry McAllister Dismissal Could Dissuade Sexual Assault Victims From Reporting

Jun 23, 2016

On Wednesday, Seven Days reported that the Franklin County state's attorneys office dropped sexual assault charges against Sen. Norm McAllister after learning new information that posed an "ethical dilemma" for prosecutors, requiring them to abandon the case.

The attorney for McAllister's accuser, Karen Shingler, told VPR Thursday that her client had lied during trial testimony about a "very, very minor point" unrelated to her accusations against the state senator.

Shingler declined to discuss the details, but said the charges were dropped after her client later admitted to prosecutors that she'd lied. But Shingler says her client stands by her accusation that McAllister assaulted her.

When asked why her client would lie under oath about something minor, Shingler suggested her client thought the question was too personal, and was unrelated to her accusations against McAllister.

The Franklin County State's Attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In response to the charges being dismissed, some advocates for rape survivors were concerned about the larger message prosecutors might be sending by not pursuing the charges.

Auburn Watersong, with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, spoke with VPR about the impact the decision could have on sexual assault victims in Vermont.

"So the reaction we've been getting from people really focuses on the trauma suffered by the victim who is put on the stand,” Watersong explains. “We know this is something that happens across the board in all sexual violence cases which go to court. It can be a really challenging and re-traumatizing experience for victims and the folks in the victims or advocacy community have expressed their concern.”

“Of course we also have the concerns around prosecution and what makes a successful prosecution in these types of cases,” said Watersong.

McAllister's accuser is now 21 years old. She testified during the trial that he had forced her to have oral sex in a barn and later allegedly assaulted her at his home.

During the trial, McAllister's attorneys focused on several inconsistencies in her sworn statements.

Watersong says inconsistencies in the recollection of the order of events are not uncommon after the impact of trauma.

“Memory experts in the field will tell us that trauma affects one's ability to think linearly — not to remember content — but to actually line up the content in the way that it occurred,” Watersong explains. “So while the content might be accurate, bringing it back together is a slow and challenging process for victims.”

Watersong says while trauma is often described as inspiring a fight-or-flight reaction in individuals, it can also cause victims to freeze up.

"Memory experts in the field will tell us that trauma effects one's ability to think linearly — not to remember content — but to actually line up the content in the way that it occurred." — Auburn Watersong, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

“We have this culture and this understanding of rape that may not be as nuanced as we need it to be when it comes to victims' responses,” she said. 

“So the average juror, the average American may be looking for the victim to be the [type] who is screaming and fighting back,” Watersong says. “And what they might hear from the victim is in fact there was a freeze response ... I also believe that we are all part of a rape culture — we really need to look at, not just an understanding of trauma, but a fundamental call to really shift that …  not just in the criminal justice system but in the culture at large.”

Watersong says in cases like this, where the defendant employs the accuser, the imbalance of power between the two individuals adds a layer of complexity. 

“The term that we use for it is sexual exploitation — when there is an imbalance of power,” she explains, “when we see, for example, an employer-employee relationship, or a mentor-mentee relationship, when sexual acts are part of the bargaining for drugs, or food, or shelter, or protection or other basics of life.”

McAlister has pleaded “not guilty” to all of these charges and his attorney praised the prosecutor's decision to drop the charges in this trial.

"Out of every 100 rapes, only 32 get reported to the police and eventually seven will lead to an arrest. Three of those 100 are referred to prosecutors. Two will lead to a felony conviction."

Watersong says she's concerned about the impact of a dismissal this early in the trial on the victim and others considering coming.

“National statistics from the Department of Justice tell us that out of every 100 rapes, only 32 get reported to the police and eventually seven will lead to an arrest,” Watersong says. “Three of those 100 are referred to prosecutors. Two will lead to a felony conviction.

“So we know that not all rapes are getting reported as it is,” she says, “and we are very concerned that victims in Vermont, and across the country, hear over and over and over again that we want to support them, that we hear their voices, that their stories are important. And their safety and what they need, come first.“